South Korea: Record growth in international student enrolment

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • After a period of decline from 2012 through 2014, South Korea has now booked three consecutive years of steady growth in its international student numbers
  • In particular, 2017 saw a record-high enrolment on the strength of a nearly 19% increase over 2016
  • This puts the country well on track to reach its longer-term target to host 200,000 foreign students by 2023

The competition for Asian students is heating up…within Asia. Several years back, Singapore and Malaysia were among the first Asian destinations to position themselves as regional hubs for students, but several other countries in the region have since rapidly increased their foreign enrolments thanks in large part to growing interest from other Asian countries.

For example, China hosted 440,000 international students in 2016 (62% – or 272,800 – at the university level), and Japan just released its 2017 numbers: 267,040 in 2017 (71% – or 188,385 – at the university level). Add to this mix South Korea, which recently announced record growth of 18.8% in 2017 in foreign enrolments in its universities. South Korea now hosts 123,850 foreign university students according to South Korea’s government-affiliated National Institute for International Education.

In 2017, the majority (70,230) of international students in South Korean universities were enrolled in degree programmes, while another 51,860 were enrolled in non-degree studies. South Korea’s target is 200,000 international students by 2023, and that goal will be well within reach at anything close to current growth rates.

Three years of growth

From 2012 to 2014 – and after years of steady growth – international enrolments in South Korea’s universities declined. This trend began to reverse in 2015, when the universities registered a 7.6% increase in international student numbers, and even more so in 2016, when year-over-year growth reached 14.2%. The growth in 2017 of 18.8% amounts to a very impressive increase of 20,000 foreign students over 2016 levels.

When international student numbers began to fall off in 2012, the South Korean government had to revise its previous goal of attracting 200,000 students by 2020, moving the target year back to 2023. At the same time, it introduced a series of policies and strategies designed to regain a growth trajectory.

These included:

  • New regulations to permit Korean universities to open departments and programmes exclusively for foreign students;
  • An expansion of English-taught programmes, particularly in STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, and math);
  • Increased employment supports – including eased visa restrictions – for foreign students wanting to stay in South Korea to work after graduating;
  • Funding of 18.8 billion won (US$16 million) in 2015 to support the marketing and recruitment efforts of Korean universities;
  • Funding for scholarship programmes for students from other Asian countries.

Needless to say, it appears that those additional steps have now begun to have an effect and have produced a substantial upswing in foreign enrolments in the country.

Chinese students account for more than half

China remains the most important market for South Korea’s universities, with 68,180 Chinese students enrolled in 2017. This means that 55% of the international student population in South Korea is Chinese. Chinese make up an especially large proportion of students on in universities on South Korea’s resort island of Jeju: 80% of international students on the island are Chinese.

Vietnamese make up the next largest proportion (11.8%, or 14,615 students in 2017), with Mongolians in third with 5,385 (4.3%) and Japanese – 3,830 – in fourth (3%). Also in the student mix, but making up less than 3% of the total, are Americans, Uzbekistanis, Taiwanese, French, Indonesians, and Malaysians.

Programme popularity varies by level of study

In 2017, just over a third (36%) of international students in South Korean doctoral programmes were majoring in engineering, with another third (34%) in humanities or social science. But at the master’s level, humanities and social science programmes are far more popular, with 71% of international students enrolled in this area. Only 14% of international master’s students majored in engineering as of last year.

Strong growth needed

South Korea’s motivation for further increasing its international student base is grounded in two related factors. First, the population of college-aged students in the country is declining due to prevailing demographic trends and, in particular, a declining birth rate. And second, there is both increasing competition and cooperation unfolding around the ASEAN economic community in Southeast Asia, and South Korea correctly sees international students from ASEAN countries as an important link to those markets.

The ten countries in the ASEAN economic trading bloc – Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Brunei, Burma (Myanmar), Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam – have a total population of more than 600 million people. This population is larger than that of the European Union or North America, and is surpassed only by China and India.

South Korea’s second largest sending market: Vietnam

Vietnam, which represents the second largest international student population in South Korea – is a market many Asian universities have their eye on (along with the Philippines). At the end of 2017, an article in The Diplomat noted,

“Asia’s brightest emerging stars will comprise India, Vietnam, and the Philippines, due to their populous and fast-growing economies. India is seen posting an average real GDP growth rate close to 7% through to 2030, followed by Vietnam and the Philippines with around 6% rises.”

Vietnam is the second-largest sending market for Japan, and the seventh largest sending market for Taiwan. China, now claiming the world’s fourth largest share of international students, is also stepping up its recruitment in Vietnam and in Southeast Asian in general.

With the increasingly complex (and sizable) exchange of students within the region, we can fully expect that Asia will continue to have a significant impact on global mobility trends for years to come.

For additional background please see:



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