Historically, South Korea has been more of an importer of transnational higher education than an exporter. This is exemplified by the array of international university branch campuses at the Incheon Global Campus.

South Korea’s foray into establishing a global higher education presence commenced in earnest only after 1995, when the concept of ‘education as a service’ was formalised following the General Agreement on Trade in Services.

Since 2006, the South Korean government has pursued policies to elevate the global standing of its higher education sector. Initial efforts were centred around exporting higher education services and supporting the establishment of overseas branch campuses, coupled with regulatory adjustments. These policies have since evolved and South Korean universities have been encouraged to establish campuses and research institutes overseas.

Digital education has become increasingly prevalent in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. Post-pandemic initiatives emphasise online degree programs and collaboration with overseas universities. Even though the excellence of South Korean higher education is increasingly recognised, such outreach efforts have not yielded many visible outcomes.

Despite a conservative legal framework and resource constraints, South Korean universities have been trying to extend their global footprint through franchising educational programs in partnership with foreign universities. This strategy enables foreign universities to operate from South Korean universities and confer their degrees.

This collaboration gained momentum in 2019, when the Ministry of Education approved several joint programs. These include Inha University in Tashkent — a partnership with the Uzbek government — and the partnership agreement between Dong-A University and Duy Tan University in Vietnam. Subsequent approvals in 2022 saw further expansion.

A landmark development was the partnership between the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) and New York University in 2022. It drew substantial attention because KAIST is an elite STEM-focussed institutions in South Korea. This partnership indicates a strategic shift for South Korean higher education, transitioning from being a fast follower to a leader in STEM higher education.

But South Korean higher education needs to pay closer attention to India. Partnerships between South Korean and Indian higher education institutions are not yet in full swing. Current collaborations are at the individual or institutional level, with scope for enhancement at the policy level.

The pivot to India is driven by India’s rapidly growing higher education sector and its burgeoning role as a global educational hub. South Korea has explored other international markets for educational collaborations, but India’s unique demographic advantage, English-speaking population and rapid educational reforms make it a particularly attractive destination.

India’s higher education landscape has been undergoing a significant transformation, marked by growing openness to global influences. Its education sector is expected to reach US$225 billion by 2025. India presents a vast and attractive market for the education sector, with the world’s largest youth population of approximately 580 million people aged between 5–24. The country has over 250 million students — more than any other nation.

Recognising these opportunities, India’s National Education Policy (NEP) 2020 is focussed on transforming and improving India’s educational infrastructure. The NEP 2020 goal is to increase the gross enrolment ratio in higher education from 26.3 per cent in 2018 to 50 per cent by 2035.

It is important India demonstrates its openness towards international campuses — providing strategic opportunities for global universities to establish a presence in India. In November 2023, India’s University Grants Commission published regulations facilitating the establishment of foreign university campuses in India, implementing the NEP 2020’s commitment to internationalisation.

Seizing this opportunity, Australian universities are making significant strides in India’s higher education sector. Deakin University opened its first Indian international branch campus in January 2024. The University of Wollongong is establishing a facility focusing on finance, business and STEM programs. The establishment of these campuses in Gujarat International Finance Tec-City — a special economic zone with more relaxed regulatory frameworks — is indicative of a strategic approach. This trend is also part of a broader international interest in India’s education market, with six additional Australian research universities expressing interest in forming a consortium campus in India.

The increasing openness of Indian higher education to global influences, coupled with South Korea’s commitment to internationalising its educational offerings, sets the stage for potential collaboration and mutual learning.

South Korea can learn from the global transnational higher education influx to India, leveraging these insights to enhance its own global educational footprint. Aligning South Korean universities with India’s education policy and market potential could enable a new era of educational exchange and cooperation. This would benefit both countries not only in terms of academic excellence and cultural exchange, but also on geopolitical, diplomatic and socioeconomic fronts.

The longstanding diplomatic relationship between the two countries and the significant industrial impact of South Korea’s global companies in India could serve as good starting points. Conversely, a lack of transnational higher education experience and institutional resources represent major challenges South Korea would face.

Ultimately, South Korean higher education needs to take more ambitious global steps. International branch campuses are becoming ‘knowledge embassies’, essential tools of both cultural exchange and soft power. India presents a strong and sensible destination for South Korean higher education.

Kyuseok Kim is PhD student in the Department of Education at Korea University.