SOUTH KOREA: Student stress fuels suicides as standards rise

A spate of suicides among South Korean students has fuelled fears that the country's higher education system is too tough, with pressures increasing as universities seek to compete with institutions overseas.

South Korean students are known to be diligent. From a young age - as early as pre-school - many Koreans attend hagwons (private schools specialising in different subjects) after regular school hours.

The pressure does not ease once they enter university. "Education is very important and a big issue in Korea culturally and socially," said Bruce Lee, director of administration in the Office of International Affairs at Yonsei University. "In the case of university students, it is quite competitive getting a job after graduation, so that makes students study hard."

Matthew Hobden, an English language instructor at the University of Incheon, believes "Koreans have been brought up to study hard because of the country's history. Sixty years ago Korea was a war-torn country, now it is thriving. This has been achieved through hard work. That hard work has been transferred to hard study; study hard and you can achieve anything, type of attitude."

But these days it's not just about studying hard - it is about studying in English and/or studying abroad. Has the globalisation of an already competitive system caused too much stress on South Korean students? Or is globalisation providing more opportunities and helping these students expand their horizons?

The Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) has grappled with these kinds of questions recently as four students and one professor from the prestigious college committed suicide.

The KAIST Herald, a monthly publication put together by undergraduates, listed some of the factors widely accepted by the public and media about what may have contributed to the students' deaths. One possible cause was the pressure of a grade-point average (GPA)-based tuition fee structure under which those with a lower GPA had to pay higher fees than their peers with a greater GPA.

Under the current system students are given a full tuition scholarship up front. However, if a student's GPA falls below 3.3 they are made to pay - this amount varies by how low they are below the mark. A lack of time for extra-curricular activities due to a heavy workload and the pressure of 100% of courses being taught in English were also cited as having an impact in KAIST Herald articles on the topic.

Although KAIST took an English curriculum to one extreme other South Korean universities are also choosing to offer more classes in English.

According to Lee, "28.54% of classes [at Yonsei] were taught in English in 2010." South Korean universities are also expanding the number of international programmes and exchanges with overseas universities, as well as bringing in foreign professors, in order to become more globally competitive.

The Songdo Global University Campus (SGUC), an expansive property in Incheon that will offer programmes from foreign universities including from Russia and the United States, is a prime example of South Korea's move towards a more globalised higher education system.

Students are also being exposed to education opportunities outside their country. "Around 100,000 K-12 [kindergarten through to 12th grade] South Korean students are currently overseas for foreign education," said Sung Soo Kim, director of the global human resources cooperation team at the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology.

Around 150,000 post-secondary students are currently studying abroad, according to 2010 figures. "They are very brave to embrace the opportunity of globalisation in an active way rather than avoid it," he said.

He believes this increased exposure to the outside world is not a cause for added strain. "I think globalisation is causing excitement and opportunity for young students rather than stress." He also believes there are many benefits, such as being able to attract the most capable students and staff from all over the world [to South Korea] and the strengthening of the global competitiveness of his country's higher education system. "The exchange of people can be a powerful tool for both parties to deeply understand each other," he said.

However, Hobden does think that learning English has put added pressure on students. "It is something that they must learn and score relatively well in to secure a 'good job' later in life. TOEIC [Test of English for International Communication] is a major concern for Korean students."

But overall he thinks a more international campus environment, with more English classes, exchange programmes and international graduate programmes, is not a major cause of anxiety.
"The majority of these added courses and programmes are elective and are therefore chosen at will. If anything these courses and programmes give them [Korean students] more options to see the world, develop their character and so forth."

Lee agrees. "I think globalisation has broadened students' view of the world and offers an opportunity to experience various cultures."

Following the suicides KAIST is re-evaluating its policies to ease the burden on students. Other South Korean universities are also trying to make life a little easier. Helena Jung, a representative from the Incheon Free Economic Zone (IFEZ), which is involved with SGUC, said: "The specific programme plan [for SGUC] is not fixed yet, but we are considering some programmes for helping students in terms of counselling and other forms since we feel that these kinds of programmes are definitely necessary for students and almost all Korean local universities are running these types of programmes."

To help students feeling under pressure Yonsei has a counselling centre. "There are various programmes composed of psychological testing and counselling from 'three-us systems' (find us, change us, share us), which support understanding and developing the self and sharing with others," said Lee. The university employs in-person counselling, telephone counselling and internet counselling for individuals, groups, international students, and students who have dropped out.