Every year on the third Thursday in November, South Korea comes to a halt as thousands of students sit the Suneung, the country’s infamous end-of-school exam.
This gruelling eight-hour test determines whether a student stands a chance at gaining entry to the country’s SKY universities, a term for the country’s most prestigious institutions: Seoul National University, Korea University, and Yonsei University.
Attending one of these universities can change the course of a young person’s life.
“That acts a little like a caste system. It says who you’ll work for and who you’ll marry and what car you’ll drive,” says Chris Dale, co-founder at Queen’s College Seoul. “The students are actually told in the study rooms: study for another hour and you’ll have a better looking wife.”
“They are kind of fanatic about it,” says Kyuseok Kim, team leader at State University of New York Korea.
But the odds are stacked against most. To stand a chance of gaining entry into SKY universities, students must typically fall in the top 1% of test-takers.
“Education here, it’s a very, very stressful experience,” says Dale. Some blame the skyrocketing youth suicide rate (South Korea has the highest suicide rate among OECD nations) on the academic pressures placed on school children.
In a country known for “education fever” and obsessed with its own elite institutions, what does the future of international study look like?
Attitudes to foreign study
Almost 300,000 Koreans were studying abroad in 2018, before this number declined during the pandemic, with many flocking to the US, China and Japan, among other countries.
Some countries facing population decline are expected to send fewer students abroad over the long term as competition for internal university places decreases, such as in China. But, while South Korea’s population is declining, so too is confidence in the higher education system, outside of the elite universities.
“During the Covid pandemic, the quality of our education in Korea [was] exposed to everyone, because everyone was able to see what was going on inside class, on campus, because everything was virtual,” Kim says. And many were unimpressed with what they saw.
“Despite the declining school age population, the number of students who want to go abroad early at a young age and get a degree quickly as well as jump into the global job market has increased even more after Covid-19,” says Emily Yoon, regional manager for North Asia at Kaplan International Pathways.
For some, international education is a backup choice to SKY universities. When students don’t get the grades needed to apply to those universities, there is often “a mad scramble” to see what other options are available, says Dale. “That’s when people start searching for things like A-levels in one year”.
The US remains the destination of choice among South Koreans. In 2021/22, over 40,000 Koreans were studying in the US, accounting for America’s third largest source market. Students commonly aim for top-ranked and Ivy League schools.
“The US is the most popular destination and I don’t think it’s going to change”
“The US is the most popular destination and I don’t think it’s going to change,” says Kim, but the figures are declining over the long term. The number of South Korean students in the US peaked in 2010/11 at 73,000, according to Open Doors data.
“They don’t like the uncertainty politically and they think it’s a bit scary,” says Dale. The US is also losing out to other destinations.
“Now, more and more Korean students are choosing to study in a country in a more reasonable and smart way that can reduce the total study period and expenses,” says Yoon.
Families are attracted by the post-study work options in the UK and Canada, while closer-to-home locations such as Singapore and Hong Kong are also emerging as destinations of choice.
But the US isn’t ready to let go yet. “The US institutions are so aggressive to recruit Korean students to turn the trend back to what they experienced in the past,” says Kim.
Instead of going abroad, some young Koreans are taking transnational courses from their home country. “As the craze for overseas education grows every year, the number of domestic global campuses and international schools of overseas universities has increased even more in Korea,” says Yoon.
In 2012, the Korean government invested $1 billion in launching Incheon Global Campus, an education hub that aimed to internationalise Korea’s higher education system and entice foreign students to the country to counteract the outward drain of students each year.
SUNY Korea, a branch of the State University of New York, recruited record numbers of Korean students during the pandemic but the Incheon campus as a whole is lagging behind its initial targets. While South Korea was home to a record 200,000 international students in 2022 (of whom 40% of came from China and almost 23% from Vietnam), Incheon Global Campus remained far from reaching its target of 10,000 students.
“Efforts to increase awareness and visibility take so much longer than expected,” says Kim. “We are competing with the other education hubs in Singapore and Malaysia or even Qatar or United Arab Emirates.”
Decision-making about international education can begin at an early age. In South Korea, traditional international schools are, for the most part, limited to foreign passport holders or Korean children who have lived overseas for several years.
The other option is to attend hagwons, private institutions that can incorporate foreign education. But choosing to pull your child out of Korea’s state education system is a big decision.
“It’s a really big decision for families to make”
”If Korean nationality students want to go to one of these schools, then they basically have to waive their rights to a Korean education and then they can’t jump back into the schooling as well,” Dale says. “So it’s a really big decision for families to make.
“If you choose that route, then you’ve got to have the cash to pay for international university because you can’t get into Korean university.
“Demand is going to remain high, I think, for quite a while, but it’s certainly not a high growth area,” Dale says of international schools.
The future of international education
Although “education fever” is real in South Korea, change is slow. Kim describes Korean families as “very conservative”, saying that many worry about taking new chances and exploring different opportunities.
“Koreans often feel a little anxious if they’re taking a different path in a culture that is held together really tightly,” agrees Dale.
But new options, like branch campuses and online education, are slowly making their way into the ecosystem. According to Kim, Korean people are starting to think about “something different”.
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