Alarm at over-concentration of talent at medical schools

Medical degrees have long been the top choice for students seeking admission to universities in South Korea, but now the prestige and popularity of medicine have begun to affect other fields of study as students withdraw from accepted places – even at top universities – to re-apply to medical schools.

The phenomenon has become so severe that news headlines and online communities have dubbed medical schools a ‘talent black hole’.

Now politicians are calling for measures to remedy the situation and draw more top students into other STEM – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – subjects where there is a skills shortage in the country as it seeks to maintain its globally-competitive edge in technology industries.

At some of the country’s most prestigious universities such as Seoul National University (SNU), Korea University and Yonsei University in Seoul, collectively known by the acronym SKY, there were 1,874 dropouts last year, according to Jongro Academy, a major private cram school chain in South Korea. Of these 1,421, or three quarters, were in science, mathematics, or technology programmes.

This year 25.7% of students offered a regular admissions spot at a SKY university – usually the top achievers in the competitive school leaving examination known as the Suneung – declined to enrol, meaning more offers were made to waitlisted students.

Lim Sung-ho, CEO of Jongro Academy, told University World News that the students who drop out of STEM courses “try to enter medical schools by retaking admission tests”.

Other data also points to this trend. For some STEM courses at prestigious universities all the students awarded places gave up their registration voluntarily. They include, for example, Yonsei University’s semiconductor systems programme and its computer science programme.

Some less prestigious universities (but still within the top 10 in rankings) were forced to hold four to five admissions rounds in order to fill the student quota for some of the semiconductor and engineering programmes that the government wants to expand for economic reasons.

Meanwhile, not a single student accepted into SNU’s medical school gave up their place, and the number of students who pass up offers of places at other medical schools is also decreasing.

Hong Yoo-suk, dean of the College of Engineering at SNU, told the Korean-language Dong-a Ilbo newspaper: “Obviously, high income and job security is the cause” of students preferring medicine.

“If you want the best talents in engineering, you need to provide excellent salaries and conditions like doctors. The risk of failure also needs to be lower. If students see that they can start again after their business fails, then they will be less fearful of starting venture corporations.”

Are countermeasures possible?

Democratic Party legislator Kang Deuk-gu called for “special countermeasures to resolve the situation where Korea’s smartest talents only seek to enter medical schools”.

According to an analysis based on 5,144 students enrolled in medical schools released by Kang’s office on 24 March, 77.5% of students admitted to medical schools between 2020 and 2023 had taken the entrance exams multiple times.

Around 21.8% had taken the exams three times and 13.4% retook them more than four times. Kang said the number of repeat exam takers reflected a “pervasive obsession” with the medical profession among elite students in the country.

Kang did not propose any legislation or specific government policy at this time to rebalance the abnormal concentration of applications to medical schools. However, he suggested changes to the country’s government-funded system of science high schools and schools for the gifted.

These special schools were set up to raise the numbers of students in university science and technology programmes (not medical programmes). However, with the increased ratio of school leavers from such schools opting for medicine, Kang suggested that graduates from these schools should not be accepted by medical schools.

The Ministry of Education announced the “Fifth Education Plan for the Gifted (2023-2027)” on 19 March, which includes measures such as taking back scholarships if students from special schools apply to medical schools. The ministry said that if the school knew a student wanted to apply to a medical programme, it should suggest they move to other schools.

Some 7,000 students are enrolled in eight high schools for the gifted and 20 science high schools. According to the ministry, 9.5% of graduates of high schools for the gifted and 2.1% of graduates of science high schools entered medical schools this year.

However, experts like Jongro’s Lim pointed out that the government “cannot stop students with these kinds of measures; instead it will need to provide exceptional incentives to attract students to science and technology (degrees).”

Lee Pil-Soo, chairman of the Korean Medical Association, told local media the reason for the over-concentration of students seeking to study medicine is the “poor treatment of scientists. The government needs to provide systematic support measures for scientists”.

The government is aware that the over-concentration of talent cannot be resolved by a single measure.

A senior official at the Office of the President told the South Korean news agency Yonhap that the office had discussed the issue several times during internal meetings and was considering “inter-ministry solutions” to deal with it. He said a single measure can only be a temporary expedient and the president wanted practical measures to assure STEM students that they will be able to get high quality jobs.

Best job in the country

However, this will also require changing a mindset that puts medical doctors on a pedestal. Medical doctors are among the most respected and highest-earning professions in South Korea.

According to the April 2022 Korea Network for Occupations and Workers report of the Korea Employment Information Service affiliated to the Ministry of Employment, health and medical workers constitute the top earning occupational group among 10 broad occupational classifications, with doctors contributing the most to the high average earnings.

Among specific jobs, medical doctors take almost all places in the top 10 for average annual income, with the exception of corporate executives in eighth place. Medical doctors broken down by different types of specialties take up 16 places in the top 20 high-salaried jobs; others are pilots, fund managers, and university presidents or deans.

According to another survey by the Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs based on data from the Ministry of Health and Welfare and the National Health Insurance Service, a doctor’s average annual income is KRW230.7 million (US$175,981), when an annual income of more than KRW100 million (US$76,511) is considered a high salary in South Korea.

It is also higher than the average income at the country’s technology giant Samsung Electronics, which is around KRW140 million – another reason students choose medical schools instead of company-contract courses, even at prestigious universities, that provide employment in Samsung or other technology companies such as SK hynix at the end of the course.

It is not just the salary that attracts students to medicine. Satisfaction is also reportedly high. The Korea Network for Occupations and Workers report noted that jobs that parents recommend to their children tend to be in medicine.

In 2021, 53.7% of medical workers said they would recommend their job. Last year it increased to 61.4% of those who responded, pointing to the increasing popularity of medical jobs.

The Korean Council for University Education’s 2022 University Student Employment Awareness survey released on 2 March this year also showed that the health and well-being sector is the most preferred job sector of 15 sectors among university students, with 17.8% of respondents stating a preference for the sector.