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South Korea taking action on visa overstays and school regulation

Short on time? Here are the highlights:
    • In an effort to reduce the number of students overstaying their visas, the Ministry of Justice has set out new financial deposit rules that will affect Vietnamese students attending Korean universities not certified under the country’s quality assurance scheme for international student programmes
    • The ministry has also set out new language prerequisites for students from 26 countries, along with new quality control guidelines for language centres

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 enrolment growth edged above 14%. In 2018, the country recorded its third consecutive year of double-digit growth (and fourth straight year of growth overall) when the number of international students in South Korea reached 142,205 (a 15% year-over-year increase).

Overall, foreign enrolment is up 68% since 2015 – a trend that has put South Korea well on track to reach its longer-term goal to host 200,000 foreign students by 2023.

As has been the case in neighbouring Japan, much of Korea’s recent growth can be credited to Vietnam. As of 2018, there are just over 27,000 Vietnamese students enrolled in South Korea. This amounts to a near doubling in numbers from this key emerging market in the last year alone, and accounts for the lion’s share of overall year-over-year growth over the last two years.

Not surprisingly, China is another major sending market. In 2010, Chinese students accounted for 71% of all foreign student numbers, but their proportion of the South Korean total has declined in the years since. In 2018, Chinese students composed less than 50% of all foreign students, and the proportion of students from South and Southeast Asia continues to expand. Vietnamese students, for example, now make up 19% of total foreign enrolment.

Checking overstays

The dramatic growth over the last four years has also been accompanied by an increase in the number of students that overstay their student visas. The Korean Ministry of Justice reports that 13,945 foreign students overstayed after their visas expired in 2018, up considerably from the 5,879 who did so in 2015. Also of note, roughly two-thirds of those who overstayed last year were from Vietnam.

The ministry announced earlier this month that it is taking action as a result.

In a sign that the government is prepared to introduce targeted controls to discourage visa overstays, the ministry has established new financial requirements for incoming students. For now, as the Korea Herald reports, the policy will apply “only to Vietnamese students with D-4 visas, and only if they are attending universities the Ministry of Education considers poorly equipped to handle foreign students.”

The new policy requires all Vietnamese students who fall into those categories to verify a deposit of at least US$10,000 with a Korean commercial bank (with a branch in Vietnam). Strict withdrawal limits are in place for the account with students allowed to withdraw a maximum of 5 million Korean won (roughly US$4,400) every six months. As the Korea Herald explains, “In the past, students were required to submit documentation certifying they held at least US$9,000 in a bank account either in their names or their parents’ names. But many students were found to have taken out loans just to be eligible for student visas and to have withdrawn all the funds right away.”

The point made above regarding “universities the Ministry of Education considers poorly equipped to handle foreign students” bears further consideration as these new rules come into place. The Korean government has a formal assessment scheme for international student programmes at the country’s universities: the International Education Quality Assurance System, or IEQAS. The programme assesses a university’s capacity to attract high-quality international students, and also to manage and maintain the quality of the programmes and services those students receive.

Universities must request the assessment, but those that earn the IEQAS certification then have preferential treatment from the government, including the opportunity to access official scholarship funds, such as the Global Korea Scholarship programme.

The rate at which students violate the terms of their student visas at a given university, including through overstaying a visa term, is explicitly factored in the IEQAS assessment. The inference in the recent ministry statement therefore is that it is students who are admitted to universities that do not have IEQAS certification that will be required to meet these new financial requirements.

That said, the ministry statement appears to leave room as well for the possibility that the new financial deposit rules may apply more widely in the future.

New prerequisites; new rules for schools and work visas

In addition to its new financial requirements, the ministry has also set out specific language prerequisites for students from Vietnam and 25 other countries: China, Philippines, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Mongolia, Thailand, Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Nepal, Iran, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Ukraine, Nigeria, Ghana, Egypt, Peru, Guinea, Mali, Ethiopia, Uganda, and Cameroon.

Students from those 26 countries intending to study in English in South Korea will now need to present a TOEFL score of 530 or better (Test of English as a Foreign Language). Those intending to study in Korean-medium degree programmes will need a level 3 or better on the Test of Proficiency in Korean (TOPIK).

Those with a TOPIK level 4 or higher will now also be permitted to work in Korea’s manufacturing sector.

Along with its oversight of universities, the recent ministry announcement also sets out that it will now take on responsibility for Korean schools, including language centres. As of this month, it has already introduced new requirements for Korean language instructors (language teachers will now be required to have level 3 certificates issued by the National Institute of Korean Language and class sizes will be capped at 30 students).

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