Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Medical Students on the Increase

From the Financial Times:

Increase in medical students bodes ill for South Korea

By Anna Fifield in Seoul

Published: July 17 2007 03:00 | Last updated: July 17 2007 03:00

When a mathematics student at Busan National University, one of South Korea's top colleges, decided to change course, he had two options.

Nam Kyung-min could either switch to engineering at Seoul National, the country's most respected university, or he could enrol at the medical college of a far lesser university. He chose to do medicine.

"I thought that being a doctor would guarantee me a more stable future," says Mr Nam, now 25 and in his fourth year.

He took the entrance exam at SNU and scored well, but chose Koshin University instead.

"Even though it's not a prestigious school, I was happy just to get into medical school at all."

Decisions such as Mr Nam's are becoming more common in Korea, a country whose astonishingly fast industrialisation in the 1960s and 1970s was built on science and engineering.

Park Chung-hee, the president during those decades, promoted economic development through chemical and heavy industries, while embarking on massive public works projects such as the Seoul-Busan highway, which runs the length of the country.

This strategy helped transform Korea from agrarian basketcase to technological powerhouse. In just one generation there was a 100-fold increase in per capita income - from $100 a head in 1963 to $10,000 in 1996.

But the 1997 Asian financial crisis, which led companies to shed researchers and engineers to improve their balance sheets, caused many Koreans to view medicine as a more stable and prestigious scientific career.

As a result, admissions to science and engineering schools have plummeted in the past decade. The Korean Educational Department Institute says the number students starting science or engineering courses has fallen 27 per cent in the last seven years; only 207,612 registered last year.

More than half the students studying life sciences at SNU are waiting to get on to medical or dental courses.

Competition to get into medical schools is so great that entrance requirements for the college of medicine at Wonkwang University, a small-town academy in the southern provinces (and for Koshin University, where Mr Nam chose to go) are higher than at the once-prestigious college of engineering at SNU.

Education surveys regularly cite "difficulty getting a job" and "poor social treatment" as the main reasons students decide against engineering and science.

The ministry of science and technology estimates that Korea will be short of 4,500 doctors of science and engineering by 2014. This lack of people with doctorates is creating a serious problem for Korea. The country still relies heavily on these traditional specialities and China is snapping at its manufacturing heels.

Kim Doh-yeon, dean of the engineering college at SNU, says he is concerned about the future competitiveness of Korean industry.

Although Korea is "quite competitive" in some industry sectors such as automobiles, semi-- conductors and ship-building, he says: "I have no doubt that such competitiveness is provided by the engineers."

Korean blue-collar workers are no longer competitive in terms of salary, Prof Kim says. "But the quality of engineers is much better than that of other countries and they are very hard workers - 12-hour days are still the norm for Korean engineers.

"Without good engineers, Korea may not survive in the 21st globalised century."

Companies are concerned about China's ability to produce everything from consumer electronics to cars and ships. Samsung Electronics and Hyundai Motor have voiced fears that they will not be able to compete with their low-cost but increasingly high-tech neighbour.

Kim Joon-kyung, vice-president of the Korea Development Institute, an influential think-tank, is worried about the future of Asia's third-largest economy.

"China is making a lot of efforts to upgrade their science and engineering human capital, while Korea is stagnating and failing to move towards the world technology frontier," Mr Kim says.

China is expected to overtake the US as the world's leading producer of science and engineering doctorates by 2010.

To try to counter with the decline, the Korean government has been offering more scholarships in those fields and has exempted many science and engineering postgraduate students from military service.

Prof Kim of SNU is cautiously optimistic that such initiatives can turn the tide. "I think we have hit the bottom and it will get slightly better now. However, the quality of students is still far below what it used to be 10 years ago."

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