This week, we interview Song-Il Cho, President of Korean agency Uhakadvice International Education Consulting, about tough times in the Korean outbound market, new trends and signs of improvement ahead.


How tough have recent years been for Korean agency business?

This year and last year have been the worst years for the study abroad market. I know that around 50 per cent of the agencies have seen business go down in this time. The market value has been cut down, and around 30 per cent of agencies, including some major ones, have closed.

Why do you think this is?

It is because of the Korean economy. Most rich peoples’ kids study abroad, but their parents’ business has been worse in the last two years. In 2012, parents could still invest well in an education for their children, but in 2013 they had less money.

Because of this, the way of studying abroad has changed. Before last year, parents wanted a good school, even if it was very expensive. Now they want a cheaper school. Some parents used to invest around ₩70 million (US$65,000) on an overseas education, now at the most they want something around ₩30 million (US$28,000).

Has this led to any new study abroad trends?

Some new destinations have emerged. For example, language schools in the Philippines have become very popular.

But one of the big new trends is that college students go on working holidays. According to the Korean statistics bureau, about 33,000 Korean students went on working holidays in Australia last year. This is becoming more popular because they don’t have to pay school fees; they want to study English through real-life experiences and working situations.

Actually, there is a big new trend of going to the Philippines for three months to study English intensively and then going to Australia for the working holiday. Students want to stop their education, take a one-year break, learn English and earn some money. Australia is clearly the number one destination for this, because they have many openings. Korean students can work on farms or in factories or do cleaning jobs, for example.

However, there is some terrible news that could affect this growth. Recently, a Korean student on a working holiday visa was killed in Australia. There will be a TV documentary about working holidays questioning whether students are safe. I fear numbers will be decreased after this.

In terms of higher education, the USA is still the top market: more than 60 per cent of Korean students studying abroad at university level go there, followed by Canada and then the UK. Of course some students and parents are looking for cheaper programmes, and more students are interested in trying to get scholarships these days, so they are trying hard to get good grades. 

How about the Korean policy of promoting international schools in Korea?

This policy has completely failed. Parents do not think this is a good way for their children to receive an international education, so the policy of trying to bring schools to Korea has not been good. Companies prefer workers that have studied abroad because they expect their staff to have knowledge of cultures and economies overseas, not just English language skills.

Are you hopeful that 2014 will be a better year?

Yes. Koreans are very fast at recovering. Two years of a bad economy is enough. To get out of our worst situation, we will invest in more education. For example, the Korean government is asking the major companies to hire more young people, so they will have more jobs available next year. One major evaluation of candidates is English proficiency, so people realise they must invest in this. It is the Korean philosophy.

The Korean government expects the economy will improve in 2014. Also the currency exchange against the dollar is stable now. It is around ₩1,100 to the US dollar and this has not changed much for a while. This stability is good for the industry.

This interview took place at the Alphe Korea conference in December.

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