New plan aims at 31% rise in international students by 2027
Education Minister Lee Ju-ho said the project, known as the Study Korea 300K Project, is expected to “stimulate the regional economy and enhance the global competitiveness of domestic universities as well as the country's high-tech industries”.
According to the Ministry of Justice, which handles immigration matters, there were 207,126 international students as of June in South Korea.
The five-year plan, unveiled by Lee in Seoul on 16 August, rebrands an earlier plan coordinated by several ministries, known as Study Korea 3.0, with the stated intention of ensuring South Korea becomes “one of the world’s top 10 study abroad powerhouses” by 2027.
Part of the plan points to raising the nation’s share of the global study abroad market from 2% to 3% in which it will be assisted by Korean overseas missions.
Easing of visa rules
The plan includes the already announced easing of visa rules. These broadened the range of language tests permitted to qualify for student visas, lowered the minimum bank balance required by students, allowed more work hours to students on visas, and shortened the residency qualification periods for long-term workers, among other changes.
In particular, permanent residency status for STEM graduates will be fast-tracked under the plan.
Baek Jeong-ha, chief of the Korean Council for University Education (KCUE) Research Institute of Higher Education, told University World News: “As the plan is considering measures to support settlement it seems to be more helpful to attract international students.”
Currently, the rate of settlement for foreign graduates of Korean universities is low compared to some other countries, with studies pointing to a lack of incentives to stay. Poor employment information is also often cited as an obstacle to staying on.
Other regulations, such as prior approval for joint online degree courses or procedures for joint curriculums with overseas universities, will be eased and universities will be allowed to run programmes adapted to international students’ needs; for example, programmes that include a year at an overseas university, which can be cheaper than a full programme in South Korea.
To attract top researchers and professors, the government plans to allow joint appointments, so that full-time faculty members of foreign universities can also be employed, simultaneously, as full-time faculty in South Korean universities.
Additional measures include the expansion of programmes in which over 50% of the course is taught in English, and the development of K-MOOC (Massive Open Online Courses) courses in English for graduate international students.
University concerns on compliance
While some parts of the plan are new, it includes several previously announced regulations, and some improvements.
In the wake of concerns from universities earlier in the year about having to actively monitor overseas students to ensure compliance amid reports of high dropout rates among international students, the Ministry of Education clarified that the criteria for the International Education Quality Assurance System – the regulations for institutions related to illegal stay issues – will be modified to ease the burden on institutions.
The previously announced evaluation system will be separated into two – one for the university sector and one for the vocational college sector – to ensure it is tailored to the different educational characteristics of these institutions.
Vocational institutions typically have large numbers of students working for industry and other sectors such as hospitals. Cases have surfaced in the past of international students being exploited as cheap labour, sometimes with the knowledge of their institutions.
However, the government has also said it will maintain a ‘no tolerance’ policy regarding institutions that submit false records on overseas students.
Attracting more high-tech talent
Several new measures to attract high-tech talent have been introduced in the plan, with the government using some of the budgets announced for national strategic industries such as healthcare and digital transformation to support short-term degree courses such as one-year masters programmes related to these sectors.
There will also be a new R&D project to support international student graduate researchers, and an employment matching information service for master or doctor graduates. The period for permanent residency will be shortened from six years to three, to fast track those with higher degrees in STEM subjects.
Under the plan, government scholarships, mainly for universities outside of larger urban areas and those with STEM programmes, will be increased. Some 2,700 Global Korea Scholarships will be exclusively for STEM students, compared to 1,355 last year, while up to 6,000 scholarships – up from 4,543 last year – will be for students in non-science disciplines.
Country quotas will also be increased for India, the United States, Pakistan, Poland and the United Arab Emirates, to help diversify the foreign student market, most of which is currently dominated by China, Vietnam and Uzbekistan, which make up two-thirds of the current quotas for international students, the majority of them studying humanities subjects. The plan notes that students from India and Pakistan mainly apply for STEM programmes.
South Korea’s Ministry of Science and ICT, the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy, and the Finance Ministry will also offer support for research activities and scholarship programmes.
Another important part of the plan is to meet the needs of local universities and regional governments. Local companies, governments, and university councils like the KCUE or Korean Council for University College Education will collaborate to form a task force to support universities in recruiting international students in areas outside the capital Seoul.
Special zones to facilitate the globalisation of education, currently restricted to municipalities, will be extended to provinces. The special zones and the Regional Innovation System and Education (RISE) plan announced in February will offer means to support enrolment of international students in local areas.
Kim Chang-soo, director of Siheung Industrial Business Association in Gyeonggi Province, said: “There isn't a factory at our industrial complex that doesn't have a foreign employee. Because there's such a big labour shortage, even people who get 10 times more [in] salary than in their home countries can be selective about which companies they work for.”
Universities and companies welcome the plan
Reactions from the higher education sector and local companies have been positive.
Cho Hoon, director of the international office of KCCE, told University World News: “The plan considers the colleges’ role in nurturing a local workforce and our demands like practical changes to the International Education Quality Assurance System have been widely accepted, so we expect it will help us to attract more international students.”
Cho added it would have been better, especially for vocational colleges, if the government’s intention to widen the doors for immigration had been more clearly flagged.
Although the plan highlights dealing with demographic decline, he noted the important measures to support post-study employment and settlement support, such as easing conditions for permanent residency, “did not directly state that the aim is to increase immigration”.
Some academics pointed to the likelihood of stiff competition from other countries in Asia such as Japan and Taiwan, which are also seeking to attract international students, particularly in STEM fields, and are increasing the number of programmes taught in English and easing the path to permanent residency.
Concerns about quality
Song Ki-chang, emeritus professor of education administration at Sookmyung Women's University, said attracting international students by easing entrance conditions "can be effective to secure new student numbers but if their language proficiency is not enough the education cost for quality education may work as another financial burden (on universities)."
Although the plan has been broadly welcomed, there are also concerns about a possible decline in education quality as many of the measures focus on lowering barriers and deregulating current systems.
A director of international affairs at a university in the Gyeongsang region, referring to TOPIK, the test in Korean language proficiency for foreign students, said: “We ask our applicants to have TOPIK level 4 or above, but professors who interviewed the students say the applicants lack both Korean and English proficiency and over half of the applicants are turned down”.
According to an official at the Ministry of Education, the ministry originally planned to ease the entrance language qualification for TOPIK from level 3 to level 2, just above beginner’s level, but it was not included in the final plan due to concerns of the kind expressed above.
The official added: “As there are concerns about quality, the graduation language requirements will not be lowered from TOPIK level 4 (upper intermediate) in the future either.”
The government has said it will establish student service centres at overseas education centres to encourage study in Korea but has not specified where these would be located.
According to the plan an overseas network will be set up to attract international students by collaborating with organisations such as the Overseas Koreans Office and the Korean International Cooperation Agency.
This article was updated on 23 August 2023 to include comments from Song Ki-chang, emeritus professor of education administration at Sookmyung Women's University.