18 universities barred from admitting foreign students

More universities in South Korea have been penalised for “inadequate supervision” of foreign students who enter the country for language training or enrol for four-year degrees but then disappear.

This year, 18 higher education institutions, including Suwon, Yong In and Jeonju universities have been banned from recommending visas for foreign students at their institutions (effectively barring those universities from admitting foreign students) for degree programmes, and 19 universities, including Hanshin, Chosun and Daejin universities, have been barred from accepting first-year students for Korean language programmes.

In 2021, 15 higher education institutions were banned for a year from recommending visas for foreign students at their institutions. They included eight four-year universities, four junior colleges and three graduate schools.

According to the authorities, student visa overstayers had taken advantage of the shift to online education during the pandemic which made it more difficult for institutions to monitor attendance.

The ‘black’ economy

Many of the students overstayed their visas and entered the ‘black’ economy, effectively as illegal immigrants. Police also believe some intended to use the student visa route to study for a short time and then attempt to get jobs in areas such as construction, and in factories and on farms.

Annual assessments of universities’ management of foreign students have been conducted by the education and justice ministries since 2012. The Ministry of Education has imposed sanctions – such as the one-year ban on a university’s capacity to recommend foreign students for visas – if the university is found to have over 10% of their foreign students overstaying or residing illegally.

According to data from the Ministry of Justice, since the onset of the pandemic, an increasing number of international students have failed to leave the country after their visas expire. However, the numbers of overstayers had been rising even before the pandemic, coinciding with an increase in foreign student numbers.

In 2019, some 164 Vietnamese students enrolled at Incheon National University’s Korean language school were reported to police by the university after remaining unaccounted for after 15 days. Institutions are legally required to report foreign students who do not attend classes for that period. The students were among 1,900 Vietnamese students on a one-year Korean language training programme at the university that had started that same year.

Rise in foreign student numbers

The number of foreign students in South Korea is currently around 145,298 – a 77.5% increase from 81,847 in 2013.

From 2019 to 2021, the number of international students studying for degree programmes rose by 20%, while the number of students overstaying their visas increased by more than 120% during the same period. In 2019, 2,833 foreign nationals who arrived in Korea on student visas were found to have overstayed their visas, and the figure rose to 4,692 in 2020 and 6,294 in 2021.

Universities like Catholic Kwandong University and Hallym University in Gangwon province, which in April 2019 had 280 and 420 language students respectively, were unable to recruit any this year due to the government ban. Three out of 10 students at the two universities in 2020-21 were said to be, effectively, “illegal immigrants” as they overstayed their visas, according to a recent analysis by the justice ministry.

A Ministry of Justice investigation of universities, looking at student records going back to 2018 to ascertain the dropout rate of international students in Gangwon province, found the rate to be as high as 28.6% and the whereabouts of a large number of registered students were unclear.

The high dropout rate of foreign students enrolled in language courses at two universities was noted and the institutions will have to undergo a review before the beginning of the second semester of 2022 before the ban can be lifted.

Language students may only seek employment six months after entering the country and are restricted to working 20 hours a week.

Foreign students plug the gap

Universities, particularly in the provinces, have turned to recruiting foreign students as a way to survive as South Korea’s population declines and a clear preference among Korean students to study in Seoul has meant a significant decline in enrolments outside the capital.

International students are classified as falling outside the student quota restrictions set by the Ministry of Education and can be a valuable source of tuition fees.

But some universities have been accused of being complicit in helping local businesses to acquire cheap labour.

In December 2021, the president of an unnamed university in North Gyeongsang province and several of the university’s administration officials in charge of foreign students and applications for language study visas at the university were charged with allegedly violating immigration laws.

According to the public prosecutor, the university’s administrators manipulated university documents in order to suggest that the students were attending regularly. They accused the university of acting as a “job broker” when it assisted students to get visa extensions on allegedly false pretences.

According to the prosecution, university documents issued between May 2018 and August 2019 allegedly falsely certified the attendance of some 212 foreign students from Vietnam and other countries and issued false receipts that fraudulently showed tuition fees had been paid.

“The university encouraged foreign students to work illegally by extending their period of stay while maintaining formal registration at the university after they were granted the status of residence as a language training (D-4) qualification,” an official in North Gyeongsang province told local media.

Monitoring during COVID-19

The one-year ban on foreign student enrolments can heavily impact university finances.

Some universities have argued they should not be held solely responsible for their students who overstay their visas because during the pandemic the government itself scaled back inspections related to illegal immigrants, and visa overstayers are common in industries such as construction.

Institutional administrators note that immigration and police departments have been unable to come up with measures to support universities in monitoring and tracking down students, often not following up on “disappearances” when they are reported.

The justice ministry said its latest assessments, under which 18 institutions have been barred from enrolling foreign students, took into account the difficulties institutions faced in monitoring foreign students during the pandemic.