Record influx of foreign students in post-pandemic rebound

Since the resumption of in-person classes, international student numbers in South Korea have more than bounced back from the lows of the COVID-19 pandemic, with enrolments of overseas students reaching record highs. And the higher education sector is looking to attract even more.

According to the Korean Educational Statistics Service Data of the Korean Educational Development Institute (KEDI), which collates the official Korean education figures, there were 166,869 international students enrolled at South Korean universities and colleges as of 1 April 2022 – an increase of almost 10% from 2021.

The total is higher than it was in 2019 before the pandemic and is also the highest since 1998 when the education ministry started to keep data on foreign students. The figure includes students in degree and non-degree programmes such as language courses and exchange students, and is about twice the number studying in South Korea in 2014 when international students numbered 84,891, and is 10 times more than the number in 2004.

Most of the students come from China at 67,439, followed by Vietnam (37,940), Uzbekistan (8,608), Mongolia (7,348), Japan (5,733), United States (3,369) and France (2,556). An increase in Vietnamese students is notable, rising from 19% of the total number of international students in 2018 to 22.7% in 2022.

‘Safe and desirable’ host

Before the pandemic, the number of international students had grown every year since 2015, reaching 160,165 in 2019. During the pandemic, when many foreign students were shut out, or could not travel, the number dropped to 153,676 in 2020 and 152,258 in 2021.

Although the overall number – including vocational college students, university undergraduates and graduate students – is now higher than 2019, undergraduate international student enrolments have not yet recovered to pre-pandemic figures and are slightly behind the 2019 figure.

Stephanie Kim, professor at Georgetown University and an expert in international education, told University World News Korea has emerged from the COVID-19 pandemic as a “safe and desirable” host country for foreign students.

“While most of the world was in lockdown and struggling to keep the virus under control, Korea was one of the few places that still allowed foreign students to enter while maintaining public health precautions that kept students safe. This is the reputation that Korea now has across international education circles,” she said.

Baek Jeong-ha, chief of the Korean Council for University Education (KCUE) Research Institute of Higher Education, told University World News: “Many degree students stayed on during the pandemic, but there was a decrease in non-degree (language and exchange) students. This [led to] the decrease in the overall numbers during the past years, [but the figure is] now recovering.”

Growing popularity of Korean pop culture

Another reason for the big rise appears to be the popularity of Korean pop culture like K-pop or K-drama television shows and films which are attracting interest globally, but especially in Southeast Asia.

The increase of Vietnamese students reflects this trend, according to experts, including those at KCUE. While KEDI’s figures released by the Ministry of Education do not show this as significant, it is highlighted in other data.

According to more recent visa-based data from March 2023 from the Korea Immigration Service of the Ministry of Justice – which is different from the final enrolment figures – the number of Vietnamese students surpassed Chinese students this year.

Of about 214,000 international students in the country in March 2023 – a new record high – the biggest group was from Vietnam at 73,800, overtaking the number of Chinese students at 67,450, which is slightly up on April 2022.

Most Vietnamese students are enrolled in short courses such as language courses. KEDI’s 2022 figures, based on university data rather than visa numbers, also show more Vietnamese than Chinese students enrolled in non-degree programmes.

A staff member at a regional university was quoted by the Korean-language JoongAng Ilbo newspaper as saying “there are many Korean companies in Vietnam, and Korean culture like K-pop or Korean soccer players are popular there. Regional universities make an effort to attract students from Southeast Asia or Central Asia as they can’t compete with prestigious universities in the capital area (Seoul)”.

KCUE’s Baek said Korean pop culture “like [boy band] BTS, is attracting more interest globally, resulting in an increase in exchange students. Some of them decide to stay on as international students. These students share their experiences and become [an information] channel for the inflow of more international students”.

Some universities try to cater for such students by hosting Korean cultural events. “When international students experience traditional Korean culture, they have a chance to better understand Korean culture,” said Park Seung Woo, vice-president for international education at Yeungnam University, a private university in Gyeongsan Province that organises such events for international students.

Student mobility trends have also meant that K-pop and other factors have an impact beyond tourism. Georgetown’s Kim explained: “International student mobility trends are changing, and the increase in foreign students in Korea is part of a much larger trend.

“We are no longer in an era of the unquestioned dominance of the United States as the primary host country for foreign students. Instead, we are already seeing the rise of a multipolar world where alternative countries are now becoming important host countries themselves.”

National recruitment initiatives

Another major factor driving the numbers is that universities and the South Korean government are eager to attract international students to counter the country’s demographic decline.

Park Jong-sik, president of the Korean International Education Administrators (KIEA), said “the decline in student numbers [within South Korea] affects the finances of colleges and leads to restructuring, so recruiting international students is critical for the survival of colleges”.

KCUE’s Baek said: “Recently, universities struggling to get enough new students are very active in recruiting international students. They hold presentations in other countries to attract those students.

“In regions with low populations like North Gyeongsang Province, there are even programmes that allow international students to invite their families and provide work opportunities for the family members.”

Cho Hun, director of international cooperation at the Korean Council for University College Education (KCCE), believes that as a result of these ongoing efforts, the number of international students is likely to rise further.

“The demand for international students in college programmes is increasing. In the last six years there was an average increase of 35.9% each year in the number of international students in college degree programmes and we expect there will be 32,000 international students in these programmes by 2026,” he told University World News.

The government has also noticed the effect of universities’ efforts and is now supporting them. Yoon So-young, chief of the Regional Human Capital Policy Division of the Ministry of Education, speaking at a forum held by the Korea University Studies Association on 19 May, said: “The ministry will work hard to support universities to take on a new role [of education] for international students and adult learners as the traditional student population is declining.”

In support of a continued increase, the Ministry of Education in April announced a new project called “Study Korea 3.0” to focus on attracting more international students and providing better study conditions for them.

The ministry expects the project to help the Korean higher education sector to secure pole position in the global competition for international students and provide some relief for regional universities that are falling short of local students.

The ministry on 8 May set up the “Global Talent Policy and Support Division”, a temporary new division under the ministry to prepare the Study Korea 3.0 project. Last month the division held conferences with regional universities to develop the plan, which the ministry said will be released soon.

The goal of the plan is to recruit 300,000 international students, but also to ensure they are not concentrated in the capital area in and around Seoul. The Ministry of Education is currently in discussion with the Ministry of Justice regarding the project over proposals such as allowing more weekly working hours for international students and providing a longer working visa (D-10) to excellent students.