Taking the long view on Korean study abroad trends

Last year, we began to report on declining outbound mobility for Korean students. South Korea has been, and remains, one of the world’s most important source countries for international students. In the US, for example, only China and India send more students every year. But overall Korean enrolment abroad fell off by nearly 9% between 2011 and 2012 (from 262,465 students in 2011 to 239,213 in 2012).

There are a number of reasons for this. A soft economy has eroded middle-class purchasing power, China has emerged as an increasingly popular regional destination, and demographic trends in Korea, notably a declining birth rate, are reducing the pool of prospective students.

The question for many observers is whether the 2011/12 decline was a short-term blip or the beginning of a longer-term trend. As we accumulate more statistics for 2013, 2014, and beyond, the answer will become more clear. For the moment, suffice to say that the structural nature of some of the contributing factors for the enrolment decline – including changing demographics and the popularity of regional study destinations – is helping to fuel a growing sense that some important shifts are afoot in the Korean market.

Supply soon to exceed demand at home

Even with the dramatic expansion of the Korean higher education system in the 1970s and 1980s, demand for higher education in Korea has long outpaced the available supply of university seats. However, a recent item in The Asahi Shimbun anticipates that this historical demand-supply relationship is about to be turned on its head.

“After peaking in 2012, the number of high-school graduates in South Korea began falling to hit 630,000 in 2013. At that time, there were 560,000 university places waiting for them. However, five years from now, in 2018, the number of places will come close to topping the number of graduates.”

Kim Jae-kum, head of the Education Ministry’s University Policy Bureau, estimates that a decade from now there will be 160,000 excess places at Korean universities.

Shrinking the system

In response, the government is taking steps to reduce the number of universities in Korea, whether through mergers or consolidation among smaller institutions or by closing some institutions outright.

“Now, if a university experiences financial difficulties or does not meet its enrolment targets, the government will slash its funding and push it toward a merger or acquisition. If necessary, the school might even be closed down,” reports The Asahi Shimbun.

There are currently 350 universities and colleges across the country. Five institutions have been forced to shut down since 2004, and another 40 have been targeted for restructuring.

“We will probably lose 30 to 50 universities in the next 10 years or so,” says Mr Kim.

Quality over quantity

Korea’s restructuring efforts, however, are not just aimed at reducing the number of institutions in the system but also at boosting the quality of higher education in the country as well.

It appears the government is increasingly poised to concentrate higher education investments among high-performing universities and colleges, and to reduce or withhold funding for institutions that fail to meet enrolment, budget, or other performance targets.

Again from The Asahi Shimbun: “The government will soon announce a new framework for university management. Beginning next fiscal year, universities will be categorised into five grades, such as ‘excellent’ or ‘good.’ Student quotas will then be allocated according to grade. Government funding for universities in the bottom two grades will be minimised. If they cannot then manage, they will be forced to close.”

The quality gap

If affordability is more of an issue these days and if there are enough university seats to go around, why don’t more Korean students simply stay at home to pursue their degree studies?

The numbers tell us that more students are doing just that. But it is also clear that there are widespread concerns among Korean parents and students about the quality of the Korean system, its ability to foster creativity and innovation, and the resulting career prospects for degree-holders from Korean institutions.

The extent to which a restructured Korean higher education system could achieve improved quality standards – and so become more internationally competitive – is one of the uncertain variables that will shape Korean mobility for the long-term.

“As long as Koreans see domestic higher education as under par, they will continue to consider overseas options for their children,” says a recent article in NAFSA’s International Educator magazine. “But if, in 10 to 20 years, Korean universities make it onto the world’s list of top schools… decisions about study abroad might look very different.”

Destination choices abound

For the moment, it is clear that Korean students have a newly expanded slate of higher education choices today. The US remains a favourite destination, and the choice for more than 30% of Korean students abroad, but Canada, Australia, and Japan are also reliably popular.

It is also noteworthy that China is now the world’s third most popular study destination, and the second most popular destination for South Koreans going abroad to study. The country has experienced a 283.9% increase from 2001 to 2012, with a total of 62,855 South Korean students studying there. This is likely a reflection of both China’s increased efforts to recruit foreign students, as well as its importance as a major trading partner and the rising demand for the Chinese language.

Beyond China, more students may choose to study in other, more affordable regional destinations in Asia, such as the Philippines, or in a rising education hub like Malaysia or Singapore.

Others still may choose to pursue a foreign degree at home in one of an expanding field of branch campuses operating in Korea. Foreign universities are gravitating to the Incheon Free Economic Zone in South Korea; the latest interest is from Scotland’s Aberdeen University, which is aiming to offer postgraduate programmes in the engineering and energy industries. And the desire to obtain an overseas education at home begins in the K-12 sector, with more international schools operating in South Korea, such as those from the Canadian British Colombia province, which now teach nearly 1,000 Koreans students on their home soil.

Korea will continue to be an important international education market. However, there are important shifts unfolding now and in the years ahead that will dramatically influence the long-term outlook for this key source country.



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