Having split from North Korea in 1948 into a separately governed country, South Korea has 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, this ‘Asian Tiger’ has much to offer international students, and capital city Seoul is currently ranked among the world’s top 10 student cities.
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. 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, while five universities have opened branch campuses at the Incheon Global Campus (IGC), including the State University of New York (SUNY).
Click on the tabs below to find out about universities in South Korea, student cities, tuition fees and more.
Currently there are more than 370 official South Korean higher education providers, including 179 private universities and 43 national universities. The country boasts no less than six top-20 entries and 54 representatives in total in the QS University Rankings: Asia 2016, and 30 ranked institutions overall in the QS World University Rankings 2016-2017®, including four new entries. Read on to find out more about some of the top universities in South Korea.
The highest ranked university in South Korea, Seoul National University is placed 35th in the QS World University Rankings 2016-2017® and 10th in the QS University Rankings: Asia 2016. Founded in 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.
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 10,000, KAIST was established as the nation’s first research-led science and engineering institution. It ranks joint 46th in the QS World University Rankings and 6th in the QS University Rankings: Asia 2016. It also comes third in the QS Top 50 Under 50, a ranking of the world’s leading universities under 50 years old. The majority of programs at KAIST are within STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields, and the university ranks among the world’s top 100 institutions in 15 subjects.
Just over a two-hour train ride south of the capital, KAIST is part of the technology hub 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 83rd in the world, 12th in the Asia ranking, and fifth in the 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 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 third private research institution included in the “SKY” trio, ranked joint 98th in the world and 16th in the Asia rankings, Korea University has a long-held rivalry with Yonsei University which is reflected in the many competitive sporting events between the two. Korea University currently has a student body of nearly 37,500, and, of its faculty of 1,500, over 95% hold a PhD or equivalent within their field. The school’s college of law is reputed for offering one of the most prestigious undergraduate law programs in the country. The university, which boasts an Olympic-sized ice rink within its campus, also ranks highly for social policy and administration, modern languages and communication and media studies.
Located in Seoul, Korea University is departmentally divided across the city, with its main Anam campus just minutes away from a popular selection of restaurants, bars, shops and cultural attractions, including a famous Buddhist temple.
Ranked joint 106th (up 12 places) this year in the global rankings and 19th in Asia, Sungkyunkwan University is another private institution which has two main campuses, the Humanities and Social Sciences campus in Seoul and the Natural Sciences campus further south in Suwon. The university has a long history dating back to its founding in 1398 by the Joseon Dynasty, and today has around 34,700 students enrolled. Sungkyunkwan is considered to have one of the best medical schools in the country (ranked 101-150 globally in the subject rankings and second in South Korea), which is affiliated with the world-famous Samsung Medical Center. The university appears among the world’s best for a further 27 subjects, including the top 50 for modern languages and social policy and administration.
Also placing within the global top 400 are Yonsei University (112th in the world rankings and 18th in the Asia rankings), Sungkyunkwan University (118th in the world; 19th in the Asia rankings), Hanyang University (193rd in the world; 30th in Asia), Kyung Hee University (joint 295th in the world; 37th in Asia), and Ewha Womans University (354th in the world; 46th in Asia). All – with the exception of Kyung Hee University – are located in the capital, proving that Seoul really is a higher education hub.
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 – atop mountain peaks, amidst the dense forests of South Korea’s famous national parks, in a traditional steam-filled jjimjilbang (public bathhouse), 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.
Discover some of South Korea's major student cities...
One of the world’s ‘megacities’, with a population of over 10.5 million (25.6 million in its metropolitan area), 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. Seoul has also been ranked the 10th best student city in the world, according to the QS Best Student Cities 2016.
Transport in Seoul 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 everything, including eating, drinking, shopping, partying and internet surfing.
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, Chungnam National University, Woosong 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. Daejeon is a new entry in the Best Student Cities index, ranking at joint 61st.
A seaport on the east coast, Pohang deserves 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 traditional side of life 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 – in March and September. Deadlines for March applications are typically set between September and November, while for September entry, deadlines are often between 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, around 25% of courses at Korean universities are taught in English. This, along with the fact that English proficiency is growing nationwide, helps to break down the language barrier for international students. However, a desire to learn the basics of the Korean language will certainly be helpful, paving the way for fuller integration into Korean society and culture. In either case, foreign students must prove their proficiency in the language their course will be conducted in.
To study in South Korea as an international student, you will require a ‘D-2 visa’, which can be gained from a 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 completed application form, a certificate of your most recent school record, confirmation of your acceptance at a South Korean university and proof 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. These fees will vary depending on the course and university.
An undergraduate course at a public university costs from US$2,000 to US$4,500 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. Average annual tuition fees at the 16 internationally ranked universities in Seoul are US$6,800. To calculate the total cost, bear in mind that there are two semesters in each academic 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 universities, 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 aim to make studying in South Korea more accessible for international students – by making it easier to cover the costs, and also to stay and seek work in the country after graduation.