Agent perspective on study abroad trends in South Korea

In the following feature interview with ICEF Monitor, Julian H. Lee, Managing Director of the Korean agency APPLY International, imparts his expert knowledge of the South Korean outbound student recruitment market, including the role agents play in it. He also highlights important market trends discussed at the ICEF Asia Workshop 2013, including:

  • A decline in the number of South Korean students studying abroad;
  • A surge in demand for short-term study abroad;
  • An increasing interest in regional study destinations within Asia.

As we have reported recently, despite South Korea’s heavy investment in education and very well-educated citizenry, a combination of high youth unemployment and intense pressure around entrance exams leads young South Koreans to question the country’s approach to higher education. This is the context for the study abroad trends Mr Lee discusses in the videos presented in this article.

Background: High investment in education, heavy use of agents

There is no doubt that South Korea is incredibly serious about education. In 2009, spending on private tuition in South Korea was the highest as a proportion of GDP among OECD countries. According to the Ministry of Education, South Koreans spent 19 trillion Won (US $17.9 billion) on private tuition in 2012. Overall, education accounted for nearly 12% of consumer spending in 2012 – a large amount of which went towards extra English classes.

It is hardly surprising, then, that South Korean students consistently rank at the top of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) survey results in reading, mathematics, and science. South Korea is also one of the highest educated nations in the world: in 2011, 64% of its 25 – 34 year-old population had university degrees, the most in the OECD, and well above the average of 39% among OECD states.

As Mr Lee explains, South Korea has also been an important source country in the global education market, beginning in the 1980s but really intensifying in the 1990s. Mr Lee notes that outbound student volumes were affected by the global economic crisis in 2008/2009. He says, however, that in the years since outbound numbers have remained quite steady for middle and high school students, and have dropped for elementary students.

As we have reported previously, overall South Korean student mobility dropped in 2012 for a variety of reasons, chief among them declining middle-class income paired with expanding in-country educational opportunities. There are, however, indications the number of outbound students has recovered in the years since, particularly to key destinations such as the US.

In any case, there are still substantial numbers of South Korean students studying abroad, and the country remains one of the leading sources of international students in Asia. A recent Nuffic report reveals that they are among the most likely in the world to use agents to help them with their study choices. About half of all Korean students who are going to study abroad use an agent.

South Korean students’ study abroad patterns changing

Mr Lee points out that the trend among South Korean students is towards shorter periods of time spent studying and travelling abroad. This is due to budgetary reasons and the fact that parents want their children to return to South Korea to spend vacation time with them and to ensure they “don’t forget the Korean culture and language.” Mr Lee believes that in the long term the number South Koreans going overseas to study will increase, but time spent there may decrease.

Popular foreign study destinations

The US is the most popular study destination for South Korean students. In 2012 nearly a third of outbound South Korean students went to the US. The US government Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) puts the total number of South Korean students in the US at 91,693 as of January 2014, in third place among leading source countries behind China and India.

Mr Lee notes that another country is very much in consideration for South Koreans wanting to study abroad: China, the choice of more than a quarter (26.2%) of outbound South Korean students in 2012. China is now the second-most popular destination for South Koreans going abroad to study, behind the US, and ahead of Canada (20,658 students in 2012), Japan (19,994) and Australia (17,256). Mr Lee attributes China’s rising star among South Korean students to the fact that English as well as Chinese is studied in China and to China’s growing status in the global economy.

Australia, New Zealand, the UK, and the Philippines are other popular study destinations for South Koreans, Mr Lee adds; he notes that Philippines’ low prices and very intensive programmes that assist South Korean students to learn English prior to studying in English-speaking countries are helping to boost its attractiveness.

The growing importance of China

That China is fast becoming a compelling alternative to the US for South Korean students interested in study abroad – and in jobs in a very tight labour market – has been reported on by several high-profile news organisations. Bloomberg reports that:

“The number of South Koreans studying in China more than doubled to 62,855 in 2012 from 2003, according to South Korea’s Ministry of Education. The number of US-bound students grew 50% to 73,351 in the same period.”

The article impresses that this new focus on China mirrors the strengthening economic ties between South Korea and China.

Meanwhile, Jeyup S. Kwaak notes in a Wall Street Journal Asia blog that a primary benefit of a US education for a South Korean student is “practice speaking English … still seen as the most important language for job seekers” but that “Korean employers are increasingly looking for graduates with experience in China.” The cost differential doesn’t hurt, either; the blog notes the low tuition fees of many Chinese colleges:

“On average, Chinese colleges charge US $3,500 a year for undergraduate study, according to China’s University and College Admission System, the Beijing-based application service provider for international students.”

We’ll sign off with the slides from Mr Lee’s presentation given at the ICEF Asia Workshop 2013 held in Beijing, China.



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