In the context of globalization and the interconnected worlds, the volume of movements of people is ever-increasing. Mobility has significantly improved, and people move between countries for many different purposes. While people move all across the world for business and travel purposes, the rising number of students are utilising the increased mobility to leave their home countries to study abroad. When you think of the idea of studying abroad, Korea is not thought of as a top choice compared to many Western countries. However, much to your surprise, Korea in the past decade has become one of the most popular destinations for foreign students on the hunt for foreign academic experience, and the current population of international students residing in Korea goes well over 130,000. What made these students make such a critical lifetime decision to come to Korea to study? What are some of the charms and pull-factors that the nation offers to attract these young talents? In this article, Expat Guide Korea provides answers to these questions.
In addition to the prestigious SKY Universities, other local universities such as Sungkyunkwan University have become important actors in constantly improving education quality in Korea. Photo: QS World University Rankings 2021
Studying abroad is not an easy decision. Whether you apply for a university-led exchange program or intend to complete an entire PhD degree, the time you will be spending abroad as a student will have a substantial impact on your life. In this sense, it is natural that the quality of education comes up as one of the most important factors that students consider when deciding their destination countries and institutions for their new learning experience.
Korea is in fact well-renowned for its tertiary education. The famous so-called SKY universities - Seoul National University, Korea University, and Yonsei University - often rank high in the QS World University Rankings and attract hundreds and thousands of international and exchange students from all around the world every year. In recent years, Sungkyunkwan University joined the academic race of Korea's prestigious universities with its remarkable growth while young professionals who are looking for a more research-focused study experience are arriving at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST).
In addition to the quality of education, the high graduate employability enjoyed by many Korean universities is another pull-factor to capture the heart of international students. For instance, you can find Seoul National University, Yonsei University, KAIST, and Sungkyunkwan University in the list of the QS world’s top 100 universities in terms of graduate employability, demonstrating the quality of Korea’s tertiary education that produces competent professionals in the international job market. Many students are also seeing Korean language skills as a tool to boost their positions in the job market. This is particularly true for South East Asian countries like Vietnam that currently hosts over 6,000 Korean corporations and businesses, making Korea a very attractive option for young students from these countries.
Korean convenience stores represent Korea’s convenience culture. From food and drinks to everyday items such as washing liquid and mobile phone charger, you can find everything you need at your local convenience store. Photo: The Korea Bizwire
Academic education is not all about studying abroad. When you move to a different country to study, you would be spending as much time off-campus as you would on campus. In other words, factors such as convenience and safety that affect your day-to-day life are often considered as top concerns by those who intend to go abroad and study.
It is no exaggeration to say that Korea is one of the leading countries in the convenience culture. As soon as international students arrive at Incheon International Airport, they notice the highly-developed networks of public transport - bus, subway, and long-distance train - that you can use at a very affordable cost. Students also speak highly of study cafes, restaurants, and convenience stores, many of which operate 24/7.
If I were to pick one word to describe Korea, it would be ‘safety.’ No one dares steal your high-brand wallet and laptop left unattended at a cafe for a few hours while you go out for lunch. Many people also have funny personal anecdotes of seeing drunk people sleeping on the street and not having their belongings stolen by strangers. Korea is in fact so safe that it sometimes invokes an indescribable, mixed feeling.
In addition to Korea’s convenience culture and safety, you have to think about financing yourself. While Seoul was once listed as the world’s 8th most expensive city, actually living here perhaps wouldn’t give you that impression. You can never leave local Korean restaurants without feeling extremely full after your 5,000 won meal that comes with a variety of free side dishes. In terms of housing, renting an apartment in Seoul is expected to be around 30 - 40% cheaper than it is in its neighbouring city of Tokyo, which is another popular choice among international students for their study abroad experience.
Bukchon Hanok Village in Seoul. The amazing view shows the fusion of traditional and modern aspects of Korea. Photo: The Korea Bizwire
The growth of Korean modern culture says a lot about the rising number of inbound international students arriving in Korea. I bet many international students take advantage of their free time in Korea to follow their favourite K-POP stars and enjoy the privilege of being able to experience ‘authentic’ concerts in their home country. In addition to such aspects of the Korean soft power, modernity manifests itself in many ways in today’s Korean society. Once you step outside your house, you will be overwhelmed by Korea’s metropolitan scenery characterised by a series of multistory business towers and technology that navigate your everyday life, such as Kakao Pay that has become deeply embedded into the Korean way of life.
Yet, tradition is well alive in the context of such a highly modernised and high-tech society. Of course, you can enjoy Korea’s traditional taste by getting outside the city, but the particular reason why Korea is loved by so many international students is because traditions and culture are so accessible. If you have a stroll around the city of Seoul, you will stumble across many historical sites like the Gyeongbokgung Palace and the Bukcheon Hankok Village, well-reserved and harmonised with the city’s modern and urban landscape. Major Korean cities also have neighbourhoods of lively traditional markets where you see people shop everyday items and sometimes enjoy a glass of sweet makgeolli during lunchtime.
In parallel with the improvement of education quality and the Korean government’s initiative to secure more scholarships, the number of international students studying in Korea has shown a remarkable growth in the past decade. Photo: Korea Times
In a way, there is a mutually-beneficial relationship between Korean universities and international students who wish to study in Korea. While students come to Korea to learn Korea’s advanced technology or experience its unique culture, universities can increase their visibility in the international society by receiving talented non-Korean students. In addition to the level of quality education, the number of international students is one important indication of how globally recognised university brands are. As such, Korean universities and the government are working in tandem to achieve their goal of increasing the number of international students to 200,000 by the year 2023.
As part of its strategy, the Korean government has been ratcheting up its effort to attract more international students by offering more government-sponsored scholarships in a bit to break down potential financial barriers. The Korean Government Scholarship (KGSP), for example, is given to 170 undergraduate and 700 graduate students annually. If you are interested in studying in Korea, have a quick read on How to Apply for the Korean Government Scholarship Program to find out how you can be eligible for the KGSP. Another popular scholarship includes the KOICA scholarship, which is available to government officials from developing countries who wish to use their academic experience in Korea to contribute to the socio-economic development of their home countries.
In addition, most Korean universities offer separate scholarships, designed to fund the academic experiences of international students. Based on my personal experience, competition for such university-based scholarships are less intense than government-sponsored ones, and most international students in Korea seem to be receiving some form of stipend. While conditions and terms of university-based scholarships vary depending on individuals institutions, financial difficulties no longer stop foreign students from coming to study in Korea.
Keep an eye on seasonal and annual sales offered by Korean LCCs for travel opportunities! Photo: Jin Air
When you start your new student life away from home, being stuck at home and studying all day long is the last thing you want to do. Studying abroad offers not only a great academic experience but also helps expand your horizons by enabling you to see different sides of the world with your own eyes. Korea is renowned for its major cities located across the nation, each having very distinct characteristics, charms and landscapes. While most international students are based in the city of Seoul, they use weekends and holidays to travel to other cities. Busan and Jeju Island are the two most popular destinations for student get-aways, and their mobility is facilitated by economical flights offered by LCCs and KTX (long-distance trains that connect different regions).
Young students’ natural curiosity to explore the world doesn’t stop them from travelling outside Korea. Due to Korea’s geographic location being the centre of East Asia, it has become almost customary for international students to travel to its neighbouring countries including Japan and China. If you are lucky enough to get the best deal from one of the Korean LCCs like Jin Air and Jeju Air, you could travel to those East Asian countries for less than 50,000 won. The nation’s biggest Incheon International Airport is an international hub airport and continues to expand its travel networks, which made it significantly easier to visit other popular destinations in Asia including Thailand, Vietnam, and Singapore.
Hongdae, which is one of the biggest student towns in Seoul, is home to many schools including Yonsei University, Ewha Women’s University, Hongik University, and Sogang University. This area is full of vendors, themed cafes, brand retails, bars and clubs, and is a perfect location for those who are in search of Seoul’s vibrant nightlife. Photo: Daily Travel Pill
‘Korean people are hard-working.’ Such an image of Koreans stereotyped as the hardest working people on this planet seems to have become what many, if not all, people think of Korea. There is a kernel of truth that Koreans work and study hard - but they do play hard and wild too. In Korea, ‘work hard, play hard’ culture is upheld strongly by young students.
At the heart of this unique culture are student towns that have developed around a few Korean universities. Much to your surprise, these student towns are characterized by uneasy and contradictory combinations of universities, pubs, and clubs. Some of the famous ones in the city of Seoul include Hongdae and Kondae - vibrant student towns that never sleep. Students who have spent stressful weeks in the lead up to final exams flock to these student towns to enjoy a full evening of eating, drinking, and bar/club hopping. It is no exaggeration that some clubs literally run their business until 9 am and you will see living examples of Korea’s ‘work hard, play hard’ culture there.
If you come to study in Korea, your host universities usually have a student-led organization that supports new incoming international students. While Korean students working there are super helpful in assisting with everything and anything about your transition to a new life in Korea, they will surely be your partners in crime that give you a valuable lesson on how to have a great study-life balance.