A student of KAIST was found dead Tuesday in a suspected suicide, the third this year at the nation’s top university in science and technology, raising questions about the competitive environment there.
According to police, a 25-year-old KAIST senior surnamed Jang was found in a parking lot of an apartment complex in Jamwon-dong, southern Seoul. He appeared to have fallen from the building. He was immediately taken to a nearby hospital but died.
Jang is the third student of Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology to have killed himself this year. A 20-year-old and a 19-year-old student were found dead in separate incidents in January and February, respectively. Both were said to have been suffering from extreme stress over school work.
Their deaths have triggered denunciation of KAIST president Suh Nam-pyo Suh’s promotion of intense competition among students by collecting school fees based on GPAs, which is allegedly driving many students to the verge of breakdown. According to a survey by the student council of KAIST graduate school, 78 percent of respondents were negative about Suh’s reform policies.
Although KAIST, a state-funded university set up to nurture world-class scientists and technologists, does not mandate any enrollment or class fees from students, Suh, a former MIT professor, decided to collect school fees in order to keep students on their toes. Students with GPAs under 3.0 out of 4.3 pay part of the school fees while those with less than 2.0 must pay the full fee. The system, started in 2007, was perceived as a punishment for less competitive students.
In a previous media interview, Suh admitted that the system was punitive and stressful. “Everyone deals with certain pressures. No one can be an exception,” he said.
According to the school, 37.3 percent of the 150 newly admitted students from non-specialized high schools and 15 percent of 801 students from specialized schools pay a certain amount of school fees.
The student who killed himself in January had also struggled to keep up with his study load. The student, who had been known as “Robot genius,” previously said in a media interview that he sometimes had to stay up all night to keep up with the school program. He paid 6 million won ($5,470) a semester. He had attended vocational high school but showed talent in robotics and was admitted to the elite school because of his potential.
After the deaths, the student council of the undergraduate school in February held a public hearing and agreed that the current system did not allow a trial and error procedure necessary for progress.
“How could you expect someone to be creative under these circumstances? KAIST should be full of joy of learning and studying rather than extreme stress,” a student said.
In response, the school established a committee dedicated to preventing student suicides. The number of in-house counselors has risen, too.
“Still, the suicides pose us a fundamental question: What is school? School should be a place of the passion, beauty, creativity and fun of scholastic pursuit. I want KAIST to be encouraging and inspiring instead of blaming and discouraging,” professor Jeong Jae-seung of the school wrote on his Twitter account.
“The school should look into the fundamental cause of the tragedy,” he said, asking students to “always knock on my door if you have problems.”
By Bae Ji-sook (firstname.lastname@example.org