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Number of Korean students abroad declines for third straight year

In recent years, South Korea has been one of the world’s largest sources of internationally mobile students (in the US, for example, only China and India send more). And so it is perhaps not surprising that the early signs of softening demand for study abroad among Korean students that were first observed for 2012 have been monitored closely by international educators in the years since.

The 2012 decline was followed by another year of falling Korean enrolment overseas in 2013, and now, according to the latest statistics from the Ministry of Education, in 2014 as well. This marks the third straight year of declining numbers of Korean students abroad, a trend that has seen the country’s total enrolment overseas fall from a peak of 262,465 students in 2011 to 219,543 students as of 1 April 2014. This marks a total decrease of 16.35% in the number of Korean students enrolled abroad since 2011.

Total number of Korean students abroad, 2009 to 2014. Source: Ministry of Education, The Korea Herald

Spending falling faster still

The notable decline in the numbers of Korean students going abroad is surpassed by even more dramatic reductions in spending on overseas education by the country’s students. Earlier this month, the Bank of Korea released data pointing to a 14% decline in international education spending from 2013 to 2014. Koreans spent a total of US$3.72 billion on study abroad in 2014, a nine-year low and more than 26% (a little more than US$1.3 billion) off 2007’s peak spending of US$5.03 billion.

That spending on overseas education is falling more quickly than enrolment points to the critical role that a slow Korean economy, and so reduced purchasing power for Korean students and families, has played in the declining student numbers of the last three years. The previous peak-spending year of 2007 preceded the global economic crisis of 2008, a turning point that has placed an overseas education out of reach for a growing number of Korean students.

“Affordability looms large,” notes a 2014 NAFSA report on South Korea. “The creaky economy has eroded Korea’s middle class. Slow income growth and increasing family debt due to the high costs of housing and private education (the latter, de rigueur among a population disaffected with the nation’s public education system) have pushed more than half of middle-class families into what a 2013 McKinsey report calls “a growing ‘poor middle-income’ cohort.”

The rise of more affordable destinations

Looked at another way, that overseas enrolments have not yet fallen as far or as quickly as total spending has means that, while some Korean students have chosen to stay home, others have chosen more affordable destinations or programmes. In broad terms, the shift here is away from traditional favourites such as the US, the UK, or Canada in favour of new regional destinations, notably China and the Philippines.

The US remains the preferred destination and hosts just over 30% of Korean students enrolled abroad. However, the number of Korean students in the US has declined in recent years, falling 9.35% from a peak of 75,065 in 2008/2009 to 68,047 in 2013/14. In contrast, the number of Koreans bound for China has grown steadily.

As we noted in an earlier report, China registered a nearly 300% increase in Korean enrolment from 2001 to 2012. It now hosts nearly as many Korean students as the US – 62,855 South Korean students studied there in 2012 – and, given the contrasting enrolment trends for the two markets, may surpass the US soon (if it hasn’t already). BusinessKorea, meanwhile, reports dramatic growth in the number of Korean students heading for the Philippines, including a 52% increase from 2013 (4,668 students) to 2014 (7,073 students) alone.

The rapid gains of emerging Asian destinations stand in sharp contrast to the falling Korean enrolment in the US (down nearly 4% year-to-year from 2012/2013 to 2013/2014), but also in the UK (down 18.53% year-to-date September 2014 compared to the same period for 2010) and Canada (which saw a decrease of 16% from 2011 to 2013).

New Zealand has also reported declines in each of the past three years (most recently, a decrease of 5% from 2013 to 2014). Australia, in contrast, has reversed a recent-year trend of declining South Korean enrolment to record a modest increase of 2% year-to-date November 2014 (compared to the same period in the previous year).

There are a number of other important trends at work in South Korea that will continue to shape the market for study abroad going forward. These include shifting demographics (in particular a declining population of university-aged students), persistent concerns on the part of Korean students and parents with respect to the quality of higher education in the country, and a growing base of branch campus operations.

While South Korea remains an important source country for a number of leading study destinations, the market has shifted significantly over the last three to five years. For the moment, this much is clear: there are fewer Korean students going abroad today and they are increasingly price-sensitive. The long-term outlook for South Korea suggests that both factors will continue to influence the demand for overseas education in the country for years to come.

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