Korean universities hit with overseas recruitment bans

Government ‘shifts blame’ for visa overstayers to universities, in blow to regional institutions wrestling with declining domestic population

April 10, 2022
Guards of Gyeongbokgung stand at the closed gates of the palace to illustrate Korean universities hit with overseas recruitment bans
Source: Alamy

South Korea’s government has sanctioned universities with overseas students who have overstayed their visas, in effect cutting off international student enrolment for institutions struggling to address falling domestic demand caused by demographic decline.

After 18 universities were slapped with one-year bans preventing them from seeking visas for foreign students, scholars said officials were unfairly punishing higher education providers.

“In the wake of this situation, it will be difficult to avoid criticism that the Ministry of Justice is shifting the blame for the lack of [visa] enforcement measures to the universities,” said Chang H. Kim, executive director of the Korean Association of Human Resource Development, a national academic society.

The action comes amid a worsening demographic crisis in the country, with population decline pushing universities to the brink and forcing many to admit international students to boost dwindling enrolments.

The number of institutions facing bans is up from 15 last year. Most of those punished – including Suwon University, Yongin University, Wonkwang University, Jeonju University – have a lower profile and are located in small or medium-sized cities, academics pointed out.

Stephanie Kim, faculty director of higher education administration at the Georgetown University School of Continuing Studies, noted that such universities were “typically more sensitive to enrolment fluctuations and disproportionately suffer” from a decline in student numbers.

“Many of these universities are also not recipients of governmental subsidy programmes to internationalise, and therefore are much more reliant on international student tuition [fees] just to stay afloat. So preventing them from admitting international students is indeed very harsh,” she said.

More than half of Korea’s overseas students come from China, with the next largest cohorts from Vietnam and Mongolia, according to data from the group International Consultants for Education and Fairs.

Bonnie Tilland, an associate professor of anthropology and East Asia studies at Yonsei University’s Mirae campus, said that while some international students might come with the intention of overstaying their visas, most such violations were accidental.

She expressed sympathy for those students – some of whom she had met during her own studies – “who likely made a good-faith effort to adapt to student life in South Korea, but did not feel supported enough to continue”, or who encountered financial difficulties that pushed them into working illegally.

“Of course, universities have a responsibility to their students, and so should make a good effort to keep track of their admitted students – not least due to potential trafficking concerns,” she said. “But I agree that it’s a tall order for universities to keep track of students without proper support from the immigration agency – and that was doubly true in 2020 and 2021 during online teaching [in] the pandemic.”

Dr Tilland said the government’s move struck her as “excessively harsh punishment” for regional universities, which are “already hurting a great deal”.

“It is a vicious circle,” she said. “The government does not invest in provincial universities and continually slanders them for being low-performing; they do not have the resources to support international students to succeed in university, or even to keep track of those students; students stop attending classes and overstay visas; universities are penalised so that they have even fewer resources.”

As long as Korea’s demographic decline continues, stretching universities further, the problem is unlikely to improve, said Chang Kim.

“All these environmental factors are expected to increase the difficulty of recruiting new students for these universities in the future.”


Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.

Related articles