What has happened at the branch campus in Korea for the last 10 years?

“Korea’s ambition to bring in foreign branch campuses to Korea was viewed as a booster for the economic gains, with one important conditionality attached”

In 2012, the Korea established the  East Asian educational hub, Incheon Global Campus in a government-led efforts to promote globalisation in higher education. 10 years on, I want to investigate what has happened to US campuses in Korea over the past decade.

South Korea is widely recognised as one of the remarkable contributors to cross-border student mobility on a global scope. In 2020, an estimated 200,000 Korean students enrolled in higher educational institutions somewhere around the globe. Not surprisingly, in 2021 the most preferred destination was the U.S. (26.8%), followed by China (24.2%), Japan (9.4%), and Canada (8.4%).

In contrast, the opposite direction of student mobility does not appear as strong with the number of outbound students historically outnumbering incoming international students (154,000 in 2020).

This distinct phenomenon led to a significant trade deficit for Korea as students are the vital currency of global higher education. According to the Bank of Korea, the gap between monetary values of inflow and outflow in 2020 generated by the transnational student migration at all levels is US$2,616 million, negative to Korea.

The brain drains and the chronic cash flow imbalance is not new concept in Korea. The situation is even worse in the past. Two decades ago, the number of Korean students overseas was 13 times greater than that of international students in Korea at the higher education level. Korean higher education has considerably improved in terms of quality and global presence, and the prestige of top-tier Korean universities is still sought-after in the local market. However, the pulling forces of Korean universities are still not as strong as the foreign competitors in the global arena.

Branch campuses in educational hub as a catalyst

In the mid-1990s the Korean government started to address this situation seriously, lowering the barriers by encouraging cross-border educational service exchanges under the banner of globalisation inspired by the wave of neo-liberalism and pressure from the international community with the inception of the World Trade Organization.

A bold decision to establish a global educational hub drew attention. The idea was to bring renowned universities to the full-fledged campus in Korea to hold local students seeking foreign curricula and degrees in their homeland.

It also wanted to recruit international students to make it an authentic place for quality higher learning opportunities and economic gains. The result was the Incheon Global Campus,  established in Songdo International City.

It should be noted that it was not the Ministry of Education that imported foreign universities’ programs but the Ministry of Trade, Industry, and Energy. This historical fact clearly indicates that Korea’s ambition to bring in foreign branch campuses to Korea was viewed as a booster for the economic gains, with one important conditionality attached; it would also be even better if they serve the educational purposes of the Korean people.

Incheon Global Campus for 10 years

The year 2022 marked the 10th anniversary of the IGC.

Now home to four foreign educational organisations – three from the US, one from Belgium and one research centre imported from Stanford University – enrolment has steadily increased to 3,600.

SUNY Korea, an extended campus of the State University of New York system, was the only founding institution of the IGC. It has since added more programs of Stony Brook University and the Fashion Institute of Technology, both of which are under the state university system of New York.

Korea’s public sectors also financially supported all IGC-resident institutions to a great extent.

Both the central and local governments of Korea, including the authority of the Incheon Free Economic Zone, invested vehement resources to boost the initiative, generously providing seed money, annual subsidies, and free-of-charge facilities for some years.

Why IGC in Korea?

The motivations of foreign universities to set up programs in Korea vary. Be that as it may, it goes without saying that both educational and financial considerations were at the core.

Increased impact, brand effectiveness, and educational and research collaboration opportunities led, while the most critical factor was probably the chance to establish a strong pipeline for student recruitment.

As studying at a home campus is an essential part of the academic programs for US institutions at the IGC, they can collect financial gains by bringing the students to IBCs in Korea. Furthermore, they use it as an offshore base for international education and experiential learning for students at the home campus. Recently, US institutions that have IBCs in Korea sent quite a few students to IGC for study abroad and exchange.

When SUNY examined extending one of its university programs to East Asia more than 10 years ago, recovery from the 2009 financial crisis was imperative.

Even if setting up a branch campus overseas is typically regarded as the riskiest form of transnational higher education initiatives, the story goes differently if the host country provides a sizeable incentive package.

Conveniently located near the Seoul metropolitan area, the location was attractive, as were the campus facilities, including brand-new residence halls, gym, and auditorium with zero or minimalistic rental/utility fees.

The welcoming atmosphere in Korea to boost the Incheon Free Economic Zone and its national project to globalise the higher education sector fueled the process.

Who goes to IGC? 

It appears that the IBCs in Korea are performing well and enrolment numbers have not showed signs of dipping. Even if it is still far behind the initial blueprint to bring in 10 foreign universities and 10,000 students from the globe in the long run, the IGC has successfully been filling the class seats up until now.

SUNY Korea reportedly recruited record-high numbers during the pandemic by reaching out to Korean students overseas who had to return to their home country or give up the plan to study abroad for fear of the virus. Strategies of the other three IBCs are also leading to steady growth.

Yet, the IGC has not been successful in diversifying the student population.

Despite upholding its vision to become the ‘Best Global Education Hub in the World,’ 90% of current enrolment is generated in the Korean market. Targets to reach the Chinese market have not seemed as easy as initially planned.

Groups against the idea of investing central and local tax income into foreign institutions have also questioned the initiative. Political sectors and local government frequently lambast the foreign campuses for not satisfying their major goal of attracting international students and creating a globalised higher learning environment in Korea.

A strikingly low birth rate is also adding pressure.

Half of higher educational institutions in Korea are to be jeopardised if they fail to meet enrolment targets, as college-age student population is forecasted to plummet in the next few years.

They may also resume flying out to universities overseas mainly in Anglophone countries, as the post-pandemic era arrives, and they reconsider the values of IBCs. Additionally, the government-subsidised period is coming to an end before long.

Situated in the middle of a shrinking market and rapidly changing circumstances, IBCs’ chance of survival is obviously under the influence of the Korean higher education context as the Korean students’ mobility pattern is the most powerful determinant for successful enrolment.

On a national level, Korea does not seem to have a long-term strategic plan regarding the development of the IGC.

The Ministry of Education pays much greater attention to domestic institutions that are financially challenged and thus in a desperate need of the government’s support.

Neither in scholarly work nor in grey literature, is it easy to find the cue that the branch campuses are being utilised as they were planned to. It was a huge investment. To give a birth to the educational complex, sea was reclaimed, buildings were constructed, money was poured, people worked hard, various stakeholders were involved, programs were imported and students were enrolled.

The IBCs in Korea probably should get out of the celebrative moments of the 10th anniversary and set out new strategic plans for the next decades rapidly.

Kyuseok (Mick) Kim is a doctoral student with a concentration in higher education administration at Korea University and a team leader at the State University of New York (SUNY Korea) *The opinions expressed are that of the author and not the institution. Find him on LinkedIn here.