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Having split from North Korea in 1948 into a separately governed country, South Korea has since diverged considerably from its neighbor, developing into an internationally recognized Asian powerhouse in the fields of technology, education and tourism, to name but a few of its strengths.
Embracing both tradition and modernity, South Korea is a region of diverse cultures and lifestyles, influenced heavily by the western world, and notably by the US, while firmly holding ontothe region’sown rich history and way of life.
Seoul, home to approximately 10.5 million people, is South Korea’s chaotic yet vibrant capital city, a must-see destination for many travelers and students alike.However, despite being so full of people, Seoul is still relatively easy to explore, thanks to the excellent transport infrastructures put in place to keep this high-tech industrial nation moving.
Even outside of the densely packed capital city, those who opt to study in South Korea may well experience some degree of culture shock, as they get to know this unique and multifaceted culture. Especially in the cities, the pace of life is fast and competitive, and the hot temperatures can also be relentless. You’ll even have to cope with finding yourself suddenly a year older – age is counted differently here!
But fear not, because peace and relaxation are also to be found, either atop mountain peaks, amidst the dense forests of South Korea’s famous national parks, in a traditional steam-filled Jjimjilbang (sauna), or on a Buddhist temple retreat where the day starts with meditation and pre-dawn chanting.Off the coast, a number of tranquil islands are also well within reach, offering local hospitality, fresh air and fresh fish.
You’ll need to seek out as much serenity as you can get in between term times, as education is taken very seriously in South Korea. It’s even been known for flight schedules to be changed and the stock market to be opened late in order to minimize noise for students during school exams. Don’t let this high-pressured environment put you off, however, as universities in South Korea offer some of the best educational facilities in the world, combined with relatively affordable tuition fees.
Investment in education and research has been at the heart of the South Korea's growth into the world’s 13th largest economy and the third largest economy within Asia. It’s this investment and growth in innovation and technology that has meant the country is known as one of the four ‘Asian Tiger’ economies, alongside Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan.
In 2004 the South Korean government set a target of attracting 100,000 foreign students to its universities by 2012 and by 2011 the country had enrolled over 85,000 international students from 171 different countries. Despite not quite reaching the target, this was a huge growth of 70,000 foreign students to study in South Korea in just ten years. Now the initiative has sets its sights even higher, with an aim of 200,000 international students by 2020.
As part of this ongoing focus on internationalization, several universities in South Korea, including Yonsei University, are opening new international campuses to meet growing demand, and five US universities are also set to open branches at the new Songdo Global University Campus, including the State University of New York (SUNY).
Currently there are more than 370 official South Korean higher education providers, including 179 private universities and 43 national universities.With all this in mind, it’s hardly surprising that plenty of internationals are looking to study in South Korea, which boasts no less than six top-20 entries in the 2014 QS University Rankings: Asia and 24 ranked institutions overall in the 2013/14 QS World University Rankings®.
The highest ranked of universities in South Korea, Seoul National University is ranked 34th in the 2013/14 QS World University Rankings® and fourth in the 2014 QS University Rankings: Asia. Founded as late as 1946 as South Korea’s first national university, Seoul National University is one of the three prestigious “SKY” universities and provides research-led liberal education to over 30,000 students from undergraduate to PhD level. According to data collected by the Korean Educational Development Institute, Seoul National University spends more on its students per capita than any other Korean university with more than 10,000 students.
The school has two campuses in the city of Seoul, one in Gwanak on the southern side of the city and one within the city center in the district of Jongno, which is also the largest campus in the capital. Seoul National University also has an impressive portfolio of international partnerships; as many as 273 universities in 56 countries collaborate with the school.
Seoul National University has a strong performance in the 2014 QS World University Rankings: by Subject, where it appears within the global top 20 for chemistry, environmental studies and electrical engineering.
Situated in Daejeon, KAIST – Korea Advanced Institute of Science & Technology, is the second-highest ranked Korean institution. A public research university with a current student population of just over 10,200, KAIST was established as the nation’s first research-led science and engineering institution. It ranks 60th in the 2013/14 QS World University Rankings, second in the 2014 QS University Rankings: Asia, and came third in the 2013 QS Top 50 Under 50, a ranking of the world’s top 50 universities under 50 years old. The majority of programsat KAIST are within STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields, and the university ranks among the world’s top 50 institutions for many of these subjects.
Just over a two-hour train ride south of the capital, KAIST boasts the technology smarts of the city of Daejeon, the fifth largest metropolis in South Korea and among the contenders for the title ‘Asia’s Silicon Valley’.
Another university offering a science and technology focused curriculum, Pohang University of Science and Technology (POSTECH) is a private research university ranked joint 107th in the world, ninth in the Asia ranking, and fifth in the 2013 QS Top 50 Under 50. POSTECH’s vast 378 acre ‘smart campus’, located 20 minutes’ drive from downtown Pohang, includes not only all the usual facilities – student accommodation, cafés and so on – but also a digital library, a sports multiplex, beautiful gardens and water features, a sculpture park and a pub called the Log Cabin, which, true to its name, is built entirely from logs. There are also the renowned “78 stairs of horror”, which must be climbed to get from the dormitories to the lecture rooms – rather a daunting prospect if you’re running late for class.
POSTECH was also the first South Korean university to be officially labeled a bilingual campus in 2010, with the majority of events and programs at junior, senior and graduate level taught in both Korean and English.
The second-highest ranked university in the South Korean capital, Yonsei University is ranked 114th in the world. As a private research institution belonging to the prestigious “SKY” trio, Yonsei University is one of the oldest and largest universities in South Korea, with a current student body of over 38,700. Along with the exciting culture of Seoul, Yonsei University students can take part in many on-campus events and activities, including the annual Mooak Festival in the spring and the Yonsei-Korea Games in the fall. Common events include seminars, film festivals, concerts, exhibitions and sports competitions, giving the campus a highly social atmosphere.
In 2006, the university established the entirely English-medium Underwood International College, which is said to have contributed to a more globalized student culture within Yonsei University as a whole.
The third private research institutionincluded in the “SKY” trio and ranked 145th in the world, Korea University has a long-held rivalry with Yonsei University which can be seen in the many competitive sporting events between the two. Korea University currently has a student body of just over 25,100, and, of its faculty of 1,500, over 95% hold a PhD or equivalent within their field. The school’s college of law is widely recognized as one of the most prestigious undergraduate law programs in the country. The university, which boasts an Olympic-sized, on-campus ice rink, also ranks highly in communication and media studies, politics and economics.
Again located in Seoul, Korea University is departmentally divided across the city, with its main Anam campus just minutes away from a popularselection of restaurants, bars, shops and cultural attractions, including a famous Buddhist temple.
Also placing within the top 400 in the global rankings are Sungkyunkwan University (162nd in the world), Hanyang University (249th), Kyung Hee University (255th) and Ewha Womans University (362nd). All – with the exception of Kyung Hee University – are located within the capital, proving that Seoul really is a higher education hub.
Search and compare top universities in South Korea >
Discover some of South Korea's major student cities...
One of the world’s ‘megacities’, with a population of over 10.5 million, the South Korean capital is home to around 40 universities, including the prestigious “SKY” trio – Seoul National University, Korea University and Yonsei University. Having established itself as an economic leader in just 50 years of rapid growth, Seoul is now attracting attention as a site of education, technology, culture, history and design. It was named 2010’s World Design Capital, and a series of restoration and development projects are transforming the city’s historic sites and the public parks along the banks of the Han River.
Transport here is brilliant, food is colorful, cheap and varied, and K-pop girl groups are everywhere. As in many Korean cities, Seoulites like to “work hard and play hard”; the working day may finish late, while socializing and partying will often go on into the early hours, with the streets of Gangnam, Hongdae and Dongdaemun offering 24-hour venues for any need, including eating, drinking shopping, partying and internet surfing.
See where Seoul ranks in this year's QS Best Student Cities >
Known for its focus on research and innovation, Daejeon is home to several of the leading universities in South Korea, including KAIST – Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, Woosong University, Chungnam National University and Korea University of Science and Technology. As well as more research labs than you can shake a test tube at, Daejeon is home to Expo Park, a science and technology theme park which includes various simulations and exhibitions and an IMAX dome cinema nearly 90 feet high. Nearby are the National Science Museum and Daedeok Science Town – a site devoted to research and development which is known as the ‘brain’ of South Korea.
A seaport on the east coast, Pohangdeserves a mention as the home of Pohang University of Science and Technology (POSTECH), Korea’s third-highest ranked university. The city center itself, although largely industrial, offers a lively atmosphere, with Bukbu Beach on the north side of the town a popular site for locals and tourists. Cultural and recreational attractions include many museums and parks, along with a famous fireworks festival in Bukbu every summer.
A busy port city known for its distinctive local dialect and rugged character, Busan is the place to go to get to know a more authentic side of studying in South Korea. Slightly off the well-trodden tourist trail, Busan is the country’s second most populous city after Seoul, and is full of hidden charms: the famously fresh local seafood (live squid is a local delicacy!), a buzzing nightlife, historic temples, an idyllic surrounding coastline and a vibrant student population due to the local Pusan National University and Dong-A University.
The admissions process differs from school to school but, in general, you can apply directly to your chosen university by post or online. Be aware that the South Korean academic year begins in March, although many schools take on new students twice a year, also in September. Deadlines for March applications are typically set between September and November, while for September entry, deadlines are often set from May to June. Most universities in South Korea have just two terms, with a summer break from July to August and a winter break from December to February.
Although proficiency in the Korean language is advantageous, as much as 25% of courses at Korean universities are taught in English. This, along with the fact that English proficiency is growing nationwide, works to break down the perceived language barrier for international students. A desire to learn the basics of the Korean language is a definite bonus however, as it will allow for a much fuller integration into Korean society and culture. In either case, foreign students must prove their proficiency in the language the course will be conducted in.
For entry into South Korea as an international student, you will require a ‘D-2 visa’, to be gained from a local South Korean embassy or consulate in your home country. Typically, as well as proficiency in English or Korean, you will be asked to provide your passport, a certificate of your most recent school record, confirmation of your acceptance at a South Korean university andproof of sufficient finances.For your D-2 visa you will be required to pay a processing fee of about US$30 (for single entry) or US$50 (for multiple entry).
One of the good things about studying in South Korea is that tuition fees are the same for domestic and international students, as part of the national plan to bring more international students to the country. However, tuition fees vary depending on the course and university. According to government guidelines for international students, an undergraduate course at a public university costs from US$2,000 to US$4,400 per semester (with humanities subjects at the lower end and medicine at the top). At a South Korean private university, fees are estimated between US$3,000 and US$6,000 per semester.There are two semesters in each school year, and South Korean undergraduate programs typically last four years (or six years for subjects like medicine and dentistry).
Scholarships for international students are widely available from individual institutions, covering between 30% and 100% of tuition fees.In addition, a number of governmental scholarships are available, which may also cover air fares and living expenses. One such governmental program is the Global Korea Scholarship (GKS).
Recent government deregulations of scholarships, dormitories, part-time jobs and employment after graduation aims to make it easier for foreign students studying in South Korea to afford living costs,and also to stay and seek work in the country after graduation.
See how universities in South Korea compare to other top Asian universities >
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