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South Korea hosts 200,000 international students, hits 2015 target

South Korea hit an all-time high for international student numbers in 2022, new data has revealed. 

Only one out of ten of the universities with the most international students is not based in Seoul. Photo: Pexels

The current student visa setup requires numerous documents proving financial stability

The data, released by the Korean Educational Development Institute, comes after an announcement by the country’s immigration service that Korea had passed 200,000 international students. 

The 205,167 international students enrolled by March 2023 means the country hit a target set in 2015 of hosting 200,000 foreign students by 2023. A previous ministry of education aim from 2011 had hoped to host 200,000 university students by 2020, but this date was later revised.

A total of 166,892 students were studying in Korean institutions in April 2022 – an increase of just under 10% from 2021, when there were around 152,000 international students. 

The figures show a rebound after the borders were closed during the Covid pandemic.

​​”The resilience of Korean higher education is highlighted by the slight decline in student recruitment during the pandemic, decreasing to 153,695 in 2020, and 152,281 in 2021,” Kyuseok Kim, a team leader from the State University of New York’s Korea Campus, told The PIE News. 

“Despite the worldwide crisis, these numbers rapidly rebounded and surpassed the pre-pandemic figures, indicating the robustness of Korea’s international education sector.” 

Just after the data was released on May 7, the country’s ministry of education also announced it would be launching a new international student support division. 

“The new division will cater to international students, partner with universities to create new programs and ease visa restrictions for international students,” a ministry spokesperson said. 

The current application process for a student visa requires numerous documents, including ones that prove financial stability. 

The division has been set up under the umbrella of the country’s Global Education Planning Bureau, and will start with seven staff. 

According to KEDI’s data, China sent the most students to Korea last year, with 40% of the numbers. Vietnamese students were the surprise improver, accounting for just under 23% – up almost 6% year-on-year. 

The surge in Vietnamese students, according to experts, could partly be due to Korean investment in Vietnam with some major corporations making bases in the country. 

Various universities in Korea have begun to collaborate with universities in Vietnam. Inje University signed an MoU with Hanoi Polytechnic College in April and Dongnam Health University also recently signed an MoU with two Vietnamese universities with the aim of creating specific exchange programs. 

However, Kim warned that the surge in Vietnamese students in Korea may not only be down to an interest in study. 

“A potential concern is the rapid growth of the Vietnam student market, as it has raised issues regarding illegal immigration,” said Kim  

“Increasing numbers of Vietnamese students appear to be coming to South Korea with the primary intention of earning money rather than education.

“While Vietnam is a significant contributor to transnational student mobility, the need for South Korea to diversify its recruitment strategies is apparent. Currently, China and Vietnam account for the majority of international students, which could potentially be an unsustainable strategy in the long term,” Kim continued. 

Other countries that made large contributions to the surging numbers include Uzbekistan, which accounted for just over 5% of the student numbers, as well as Japan with 3.5%.

“The need for South Korea to diversify its recruitment strategies is apparent”

 “These countries primarily contribute to the language program students, leading to an increase in certificate mobility,” Kim explained. 

KEDI’s data refers to international students at higher education institutions (graduate and undergraduate) as well as non-degree programs and language courses. 

In terms of the institutions attracting the most international students, the private institution of Hanyang University was the most successful, with some 6,999 overseas students attending the university in 2022. 

Hanyang was closely followed by Kyung Hee University with 6,912 international students; Sungkyunkwan University with 6,676; Yonsei University with 5,926 and finally Korea University with just 4,739.

Missing from the top five was the top ranked university in Korea, Seoul National University, but all five are based in Seoul.

“Despite the worldwide crisis, these numbers rapidly rebounded”

Only one of the top ten universities with the most international students is not based in Seoul: Gacheon University in Seognam, which welcomed 3,057 international students in 2022. 

It shows the need for more MoUs and partnerships for universities outside the capital, as has been occurring, said Kim. He added that, overall, the numbers increasing at this rate is encouraging. 

“There has been a steady increase in the enrolment of international students in South Korean HEIs over the past two decades,” Kim said. 

“The number [is a] significant leap from the mere 12,314 students in 2003. This impressive growth is attributed to the increased recognition of the need to globalise higher education, which has subsequently caught the attention of Korean HEIs.” 

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