SEOUL – Last week, the South Korean college entrance exam academy Jongno Hagwon released its analysis of official education data, showing that in the past five years, 2,131 students had dropped out of Seoul National University (SNU), Korea University and Yonsei University, the country’s three most prestigious tertiary education institutes.
Private education experts believe such a phenomenon is caused by students who, after being accepted at top universities, are preparing to take the college entrance exam again.
According to other data compiled by SNU and released in May, 6.2 per cent of the school’s 3,606 freshmen in 2023 took a leave of absence immediately after enrolling.
“A leave of absence right after entering SNU, the top Korean school, appears to be an attempt to get admitted to colleges of medicine, dentistry or oriental medicine, which require higher grades,” said Mr Lee Man-ki of the Uway Educational Assessment Research Institute.
As doctors are well paid and have social prestige in most countries, becoming one is something that is highly sought after across the world. But preference for the profession is much more pronounced in South Korea, where the cut-off score for Suneung – the college scholastic ability test – for medical schools is far higher than the scores required for non-medical departments at the country’s top higher education institutes.
The authorities have been working to tackle the issue for years, with no tangible results to show as yet.
Hypercompetitive med school race
The course of study for a medical degree differs in each country, and the course in South Korea has undergone several reforms. But the gist of it is that to be a qualified physician, one needs to complete a six-year course that encompasses an undergraduate education, pre-clinical studies and practical training. A high Suneung score is crucial for gaining entry to the course.
The data from Jongno Hagwon showed that to be accepted to the lowest-ranked medical college in South Korea, one needs to achieve a percentile rank of 97.7, meaning that one must outperform 97.7 per cent of the students who took the Suneung exam. This requirement is notably higher than the cut-off for non-medical SNU colleges, which stands at 94.3 per cent.
Non-medical colleges are divided into two main categories: the first focuses on science, technology, engineering and maths (Stem), and the second on the liberal arts, which include law, business management and other humanities.
To be accepted at the prestigious SNU College of Medicine, one needs to be at least at the 99.2 percentile – meaning the top 0.8 per cent of everyone who applied for college admission in the same year.
Very roughly put, it is harder to get into the lowest-ranked medical school than to be accepted at the highest-ranked non-medical college, at least in the aforementioned Stem fields of study.
The number of older applicants is also on the rise. According to the Korean Educational Development Institute, 582 people aged 26 or older were accepted by medical colleges in 2021, compared with 130 in 2017.
Earlier in 2023, the story of a man surnamed Gwak who got into medical school at the age of 45 went viral on YouTube. “When my daughter was born after I turned 41, I began worrying about money,” Mr Gwak, an SNU graduate who worked at a major corporation for 17 years, said in the video.
He said he needed a job where he could work for a long time without having to worry about the retirement age set by the corporation where he worked.
Mr Seong Gwang-jin, a former teacher who heads the private think-tank Daejeon Education Institute, claims that freezing the annual cap on medical college admissions in 2006 is the main culprit in the current situation.
He wrote in a recent column: “Average age and incomes have increased in Korean society, as has the demand for medical care. The number of openings at medical schools, on the other hand, has remained the same, which has made the position of doctor the most coveted and highest-earning.”
Being a doctor is a dream job, apparently even for a man who already has a job.
Authorities’ struggle to address issue
The government is moving to tackle the matter. Health Minister Cho Kyoo-hong said in June in a National Assembly session that the student quota for medical schools will be increased by 2025, citing a consensus between the government and medical communities.
According to data from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), South Korea has 2.5 doctors for every 1,000 people, considerably fewer than the OECD average of 3.7.
But the problem is that a majority of the country’s most talented students are focused only on getting into medical school, which leads to a shortage of talent in other fields.
South Korea has a few elite schools devoted to Stem subjects. But statistics show that a considerable number of students in these science schools end up becoming medical students.
Data revealed recently by Representative Kang Deuk-gu of the main opposition Democratic Party of Korea showed that 8.5 per cent of graduates from seven elite high schools established under the Gifted Education Promotion Act went to medical colleges between 2019 and 2021.
This alarmed the Education Ministry, which warned that these schools should specify that studying medicine can result in disadvantages for the students.
Seoul Science High School (SSHS) has specified since 2018 in its recruitment guide that the institute is not suitable for those seeking to go to medical school, and that such students would have to return their scholarship funds and forgo college entrance recommendations.
Despite this, nearly a quarter – 23.7 per cent – of SSHS graduates went on to medical colleges in the three years since 2019. The percentage of science school graduates going to medical colleges is creeping up each year, from 8.5 per cent in 2021 to 9.1 per cent and 9.5 per cent in 2022 and 2023, respectively.
For years, the South Korean government focused on what appeared to be a logical solution to the two problems: If an excessive number of students want to attend medical school, and there are calls for more doctors across the country, why do medical schools not accept more students?
Media reports in 2023 suggested that the government is seeking to increase the capacity of medical colleges in the country, starting as early as 2024.
But the plan is facing severe backlash from some within medical circles.
The Korean Medical Association (KMA) recently held a press conference denying reports that the organisation had decided to accept the government’s proposals for increasing admissions to medical colleges, saying the discussion is “just getting started”. The conference was held in response to calls from the association’s regional branches for the leadership to resign in relation to the said reports.
Another possible solution proposed is establishing a new state-run medical college, which the KMA is also against.
While split on what the solution should be, it is generally agreed that so many students aiming to get into medical school is not an ideal situation.
In August, the National Assembly Research Service released its report on the 2023 parliamentary audit, which said that a large number of elite students solely aiming to enter medical school is “not good for national competitiveness”.
The report suggested that the government review a plan to increase support for non-medical Stem students by creating economic incentives, such as boosting salaries for experts in their fields after graduation.
The Ministry of Health and Welfare is slated to hold a meeting with the KMA on Sept 21 on medical industry issues.
Eyes are on both parties to see if they can come up with feasible and effective plans to address the overconcentration of talent in medical colleges. THE KOREA HERALD/ASIA NEWS NETWORK
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