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2nd Jul 2023

Korea eases work and visa policies in a bid to further boost foreign enrolment

Short on time? Here are the highlights:
  • Korean foreign enrolment has been growing quickly, both before and after the pandemic
  • With a significant decline in domestic students projected through 2040, the government has now introduced a package of new policies designed to attract even more students
  • The new measures reduce the financial requirements for visa applications, open up new options for demonstrating Korean language proficiency, and expand the during-study and post-study work opportunities for international students

South Korea's higher education system is already feeling the effects of an "enrolment cliff". The country's college-aged population has been declining for some time, and further significant decreases are projected through the mid-point of this century.

Earlier this year, the Korean Council for University Education (KCEU, an association of degree-granting institutions in the country) projected that the number of students eligible to enter university would drop by nearly 40% within the next 20 years, from about 460,000 as of 2020 to 280,000 by 2040.

An increasing number of universities are under pressure as a result, particularly those outside of the major population centres, and the Ministry of Education recently identified as many as 84 "financially insolvent" universities that will need to close in short order. This is from a base of roughly 385 universities and colleges as of 2021, and policy reforms are expected – including a package of financial measures that will aid institutions to wind up operations – as a growing number of the country's mostly private universities struggle to attract sufficient numbers of students.

International enrolment continues to grow

One bright spot has been the continuing growth of South Korea's foreign enrolment, which passed the 200,000-student threshold. The Korea Immigration Service (KIS) reported in March 2023 that there were just over 205,000 international students enrolled in the country as of February 2023.

This reflects a pattern of significant enrolment gains that stretches back before the pandemic, and represents a roughly 25% increase over the enrolment base reported in 2019.

The KIS figures for this year reveal that about 71% of students were in the country on a D-2 student visa; with the balance holding a D-4-1 visa for Korean language learning.

The vast majority come from Vietnam (70,212, or 34%) and China (63,859, 31%), with other Central Asian markets such as Uzbekistan and Mongolia, contributing another 24,000 students combined (or about 12% of the total as of the first quarter of this year).

New policies announced

On 23 June, the South Korean government introduced a package of incentives designed to attract students in even greater numbers. “We plan to enhance the foreign student system that would support the increase in foreign students while contributing to improving the foreign students’ social adjustment,” said a statement from the Ministry of Justice.

The package includes new visa rules that will come into effect on 3 July 2023. Under the new rules, the minimum bank balance that students have to show as part of their D-2 visa applications will drop from KRW26 million (US$20,000) to KRW20 million (US$15,000). Those applying for visas for language studies (D-4 visas) will need to show balances of KRW10 million (US$7,600) as opposed to the previous requirement of KRW13 million (US$10,000).

That financial requirement drops even lower for those applying for studies outside of South Korea's major cities where the new benchmarks are KRW16 million (US$12,000) for D-2s and KRW8 million (US$6,000) for D-4 visas.

In addition, the Ministry is opening up additional during-study work opportunities for visiting students, with the limit on working hours now being raised to 25 hours per week (up from the previous 20). Those enrolled outside of major cities will be permitted to work up to 30 hours per week.

In order to be eligible to work in South Korea during their studies, foreign students must also demonstrate that they have sufficient Korean language skills. Up until now, they could only do so via the Test of Proficiency in Korean. But the Ministry has expanded the eligible tests now to include the online King Sejong Institute level test as well as the Korean Language Ability Test.

Finally, the Ministry of Justice (which is also the ministry for the Korean Immigration Service) also announced an easing of rules for those students who wish to stay and work in South Korea after graduation. The number of years in Korea required for a longer-term E-7-4 visa has been reduced from five years to four years, and hiring restrictions on foreign workers have now also been eased for Korean employers. This last point appears to reflect a turn in Korean policy toward a more open immigration policy aimed at attracting greater numbers of skilled foreign graduates, and we might anticipate further changes in the country's broader immigration framework going forward.

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