Latest figures from the South Korea Immigration Service show that Korea has exceeded its 2015 target to host 200,000 international students by 2023. However, the country intends to further increase numbers, announcing a suite of initiatives aimed at increasing the attractiveness of Korea as a study abroad destination. 

In March 2023, South Korea (Korea) was hosting 205,167 international students. The represents an increase of 22.9% from 2022, when there were 166,892 students studying in Korean higher education institutions, and a record high. Most international students studying in Korea are enrolled in Seoul universities. Just one of Korea’s top ten universities for hosting international students is outside Seoul – Gacheon University in Seognam, which welcomed 3,057 international students in 2022. 

China is the primary sending market for Korea, accounting for 40% of Korea’s international student numbers. Vietnam is the second biggest sender, with Vietnamese students making up just under 23% of international students and showing an increase of almost 6% year-on-year. Other key markets include Uzbekistan and Mongolia with a combined 24,000 students (12% of the total international student population). 

The surge in Vietnamese students, is believed to be partly be due to Korean investment in Vietnam with some major corporations making bases in the country. It is also the result of several exchange programmes between Korean and Vietnamese higher education institutions.  

Korean authorities have expressed concern however, that the rapid growth in Vietnamese student numbers may be partly due to a desire on the part of Vietnamese students to work in Korea, rather than a genuine interest in studying abroad. The Korean ministry of education has stressed the need for Korea to recruit from a more diverse range of countries going forward, to counter any risk in this regard. 

International student recruitment has become critical for Korea, as the country faces a declining domestic university-age population. Declining birth rates mean that the number of Korean students eligible to enter university is projected to drop by nearly 40%, from around 460,000 students as of 2020, to 280,000 by 2040. As a result, many Korean universities face significant financial pressure, and the Ministry of Education has identified 84 universities, primarily located outside Seoul, that are “financially insolvent” and may need to close if government-recommended strategies to stay afloat are unsuccessful.  

Korea’s Ministry of Education has announced it will be launching a new international student support division which will come under Korea’s Global Education Planning Bureau as part of its efforts to increase international student recruitment. The new division will focus on partnering with universities to create new programmes and simplify visa processes for international students. 

The Korean government has also introduced a package of incentives designed to increase the attractiveness of Korea as a study abroad destination. Initiatives include a reduction in the minimum bank balance that students must show in order to be grated a student visa, an increase in the number of hours that student visa holders can work each week. The government has also made it easier for students to obtain a longer-term visa which would enable them to work post study, dropping the requirement to have spent five years in Korea prior to applying down to four years.