The Korea Herald


[Campus Now] Hallyu, brokers and students' Korean dreams

Of foreign graduates, 8.2% locally hired, 28.6% left country, over 50% 'unknown'

By Choi Jeong-yoon

Published : March 13, 2024 - 15:45

    • Link copied

AI image of international students generated by 123rf. AI image of international students generated by 123rf.

South Korea's universities are witnessing a transformative shift in their cultural landscape, brought by a surge in the number of international students.

Though the trend was stagnant during the pandemic era, the number of international students in Korea has steadily increased over the decades, amounting to 181,842 as of 2023. That is more than double the number 10 years ago (85,923), and 10 times more than in 2004 (16,832), when the Education Ministry began compiling related statistics.

(The Korea Herald) (The Korea Herald)

The backgrounds of international students have diversified significantly. While students from Asia make up 89 percent of the total, some 6 percent came from Europe, 2.3 percent from North America, 1.5 percent from Africa, and less than 1 percent each from South America and Oceania.

By country of origin, China had the largest number of students in 2023, with 68,065, followed by Vietnam (43,361) and Uzbekistan (10,409). While China remains the primary source of foreign students, its dominance has been weakening in recent years, from 48.2 percent in 2018 to 37.4 percent in 2023. In contrast, Vietnamese students have become a growing presence, with their share of the total increasing from 19.0 percent to 23.8 percent over the same period.

“The increase in the number of students from Vietnam and Southeast Asian countries lies in the recent rise of recognition and popularity of Korean content, or what we call 'Hallyu,'” explained Lee Un-sik, head of the global talent policy & support division at the Ministry of Education.

With the increasing presence of Korean conglomerates in Vietnam and Korean cultural factors such as K-pop and soccer coach Park Hang-seo leading the national team there, the interest in Korea among young Vietnamese has been growing.

(The Korea Herald) (The Korea Herald)

This gives rise to a peculiar phenomenon: Majors that were on the brink of extinction growing in popularity thanks to foreign students.

“While Korea struggles with the extinction of majors such as humanities and languages, these are what international students want to learn, ironically. As many find interest in Korean content and K-pop idols, their interest in the Korean language increased, leading them to major in the Korean language. Now universities are coming up with K-content-related masters or majors,” said an official from one of the major universities in Seoul.

Korean dream

For some, coming to study here was a road to a "better life."

"I came to Korea when I was young and was mesmerized by the culture and lifestyle that Korea has. South Korea is a very advanced and developed country, not to mention the fact that you can order 24/7 and have access to almost everything," said 25-year-old Liana Shin, who came from Kyrgyzstan.

"You can't expect a life like here from where I come from. Korea is a very safe country to live in while having an abundance of cultural diversity. The quality of life is different. While studying in Korea, I decided I want to live here for as long as I can, so that I have a better living here."

International students also come to earn money, according to Jun Jung-sook, a professor at Pyeongtaek University.

"Most of the Southeast Asian students have to earn money while studying in Korea. If students work part-time jobs at a convenience store or a restaurant, they earn around 1.5 million won ($1,144), a similar amount their parents would earn in three to four months at home," Jun told the Korea Herald.

Jun is a Vietnamese immigrant herself. She finished her doctorate on multiple cultures and was appointed as a professor in 2012. She has been the head of the university's support center for international students since 2015.

The reality these students face is cruel, she said, saying that they can get trapped in a vicious circle in which they end up becoming illegal immigrants.

For an international student to study in Korea, they have to certify their financial capability to stay in Korea by having up to 20 million won ($15,254) in their bank deposits. If the money is withdrawn, or if they fail to meet the standard, they could face deportation.

Hanshin University faced fierce criticism for forcibly ejecting 22 Uzbekistan students in December last year, claiming they preemptively prevented students from being deported as they failed to maintain the minimum amount in their bank account to keep their student visas.

In the complex process of establishing financial capabilities and having related documents ready, at the initial process of the vicious cycle stands those who take advantage of the students' desperate aspiration to come to Korea: the brokers.

Why brokers?

Despite students' strong desire to come to Korea, the process they have to go through in Vietnam is very complicated, leaving students with no other choice but to rely on brokers, according to Jun.

"In the past, the route to coming to Korea to work and study for Vietnamese was very narrow so that they had to depend on brokers and agencies that set up necessary processes," said Jun.

The types of brokers vary. They are almost in every step of the immigration process. Some help students find adequate schools to enroll in, while some connect students to language institutions so they can prepare for the Korean language test needed for admission. Brokers who help students prepare the necessary documents, especially those certifying bank deposits, often put the students in deep trouble in the end, according to Jun. They charge high fees and even loan students the money they need at a high interest rate.

"Having to pay fees in every step of the preparation, students spend thousands of dollars even before coming to Korea, which leaves them no choice but to work in Korea. As they have debt, they end up working in Korea even after their student visa expires, making them illegal sojourners," Jun explained.

Though students now have better access to information, the reality is that they still depend on these brokers because obtaining a visa is extremely difficult. Taking agencies that counsel students on studying abroad into account, 80 to 90 percent of students depend on such groups.

Demographic crisis

With Korean student numbers waning, attracting international students is at the forefront of the agenda of many universities and local governments.

"Local universities and governments are eager to attract foreign students as the enrollment of Korean students decreases due to low birth rate. School presidents are visiting Vietnam, Uzbekistan, and other countries themselves to sign state-level MOUs to beckon international students," said the government official.

South Korea unveiled a five-year plan last year to attract 300,000 international students to tackle the lack of local students and to strengthen the competitiveness of local regions whose local populations are in danger of dying out.

The government announced plans to lift the Korean language requirement for university admission, expand opportunities for internships and employment, and establish a fast-track visa system to attract talented foreign students.

Setting up a facility within Korean Education Centers around the world charged with attracting foreign students is also in the plan. The facilities will connect Korean universities with local universities to provide Korean language programs and consultations on studying in Korea.

(The Korea Herald) (The Korea Herald)

After graduation

Despite the government's aim to have international students settle down and live as part of the community, many say the reality doesn't match the expectations.

A 26-year-old who finished her master's degree in Korea and now works at a Korean company, who refused to reveal her nationality other than that she was from Europe, said that Korea seemed "unready to accept foreigners."

"Maintaining life after graduation is extremely hard, as there are so many restrictions and barriers to getting a working visa. Though I have gotten offers from big companies for high compensation, I was denied a visa twice," she said.

While applying for the visa, she was asked to hand in different documents by different employees at the immigration office, and had to visit the center several times.

"The decentralization of the visa information is harmful and makes it hard for a foreigner to get a visa they are very much qualified for. If the government wants to attract more potential long-term residents, immigration needs to be uniform and rules must be available and clear to everyone," she added.

Students who fail to meet the deadline or requirements for visas, or who could not afford to look for a job for months, have no choice but to leave the country.

Of the 27,321 foreign graduates from Korean universities, only 2,253 (8.2 percent) were hired by a company in Korea, while 7,810 (28.6 percent) left Korea.

The situation for more than half of graduates remains unknown to the authorities. Experts point out that many end up staying in Korea illegally. As of 2023, there were 35,504 people here without permission after entering on student visas.

Sustainable system

The government emphasizes the importance of cooperation from each sector, as education, employment, and settlement are closely linked.

"Working with companies and local governments to boost international students and fostering them as local talents is something that just started. As strength and shortages in industries differ by region, this should be a bottom-up solution, where local bodies suggest what kind of support they need," an Education Ministry official said.

One way to make the system more sustainable would be for universities and the government to survey the needs of the workforce in local companies and institutionalize industrial education that can be used in real practice.

"Korea has an apparent shortage of labor. No matter the type of labor, whether it's simple, repetitive, seasonal or requires expertise, there should be passageways for foreign students to continue their studying," said Jun, emphasizing a system that manages students' lives on their life timelines so that they can adapt to school life and smoothly transition to life as employees and residents.

The Korea Herald is delving into the latest trends, transformative educational systems, and the campus cultures at South Korean universities, as they impact society in Korea and beyond. This is the second article in the series. -- Ed.