South Korea reporting big gains in foreign enrolment

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • International student numbers in South Korea grew again this year
  • This represents the sixth consecutive year of growth in the country’s foreign enrolment and a new record high
  • China remains the key sending market but Vietnam has clearly emerged as the main driver of overall enrolment growth over the last three years

The latest data from South Korea’s Ministry of Education reveals continued strong growth in foreign student numbers. Drawing on survey data from 430 South Korean universities and colleges, the Ministry reports total international enrolment of 160,165 as of 1 April 2019.

This record-high enrolment reflects the continuing expansion of recruitment marketing by South Korean institutions in recent years as the country’s universities continue to struggle with declining demographic trends – and a shrinking population of college-aged students in particular – at home.

The numbers for this year represent a nearly 13% increase year-over-year and 30% growth from 2017.

The record-high enrolment for 2019 also extends a trend of continuous growth from 2014/15, a point at which South Korea’s universities reversed three consecutive years of declining international student numbers from 2012 through 2014.

As reflected in the chart below, this amounts to total growth of 75% between 2015 and 2019, or just under 69,000 additional students enrolled.

Left: Total foreign enrolment growth in South Korean higher education, 2015–2019; right: Leading sending countries, 2019 (with percentage values shown in parentheses). Source: South Korean Ministry of Education; adapted by Pulse News/Maeil Business

Also reflected in the chart above (at right), are South Korea’s major sending markets. As the graph illustrates, China remains far and away the dominant source of foreign students for the country’s universities and colleges, and accounts for more than 44% of total enrolment this year. However, even as the total number of Chinese students has continued to grow in recent years, Chinese students, as a percentage of total foreign enrolment in the country, have declined throughout this decade, from a high point of more than 70% as of 2010.

Not surprisingly, Vietnam continues to be another important source of growth for South Korean institutions, accounting for nearly one in four foreign students in the country as of April 2019. Rounding out the top five sending markets again this year are Mongolia (nearly 5%), Japan (3%), and the United States (2%).

Among those markets, Vietnam has been the major driver of growth for South Korea over the last two years. Vietnamese enrolments increased by 156% between 2017 and 2019 alone, for a net increase of nearly 23,000 students. This compares to 4% growth, or a net gain of under 3,000 students, for Chinese enrolments over this same period.

Nearly two-thirds of all international students in South Korea (100,215 in total) are enrolled in degree programmes. The remaining 60,000 foreign students in the country this year are pursuing Korean language studies or vocational training.

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