A spate of student suicides has pushed the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, one of Korea’s top science universities in Daejeon, into a crisis it has never experienced before.
In a short span of three months, four students took their own lives, shocking the school’s students and staff. The latest victim was a 19-year-old sophomore, identified by his surname Park, who jumped to his death Thursday from an apartment building in Incheon.
One day before the tragic incident, Park applied for a leave of absence from the school by submitting a diagnosis of depression. Park’s father reportedly said his son was recently very disappointed with his poor grades and worried about the tuition fees that would be charged to him under the school’s grade-based tuition system.
Park’s death came nine days after a 25-year-old senior took his life by jumping from an apartment building in southern Seoul. On March 20, another sophomore committed suicide in Suwon, Gyeonggi Province. In January, a 19-year-old freshman, widely known as a robotics genius, killed himself by taking an overdose of sleeping pills.
What drove these bright and talented young students to suicide? They probably had different reasons. But the victims reportedly all suffered from extreme stress over school work and depression resulting from it.
The finger of blame is being pointed at Suh Nam-pyo, the university’s president since 2006. A former MIT professor, Suh has sought to make KAIST one of the world’s best science universities. Under this vision, he has introduced a set of reform measures aimed at increasing competition on the campus.
For instance, he introduced a tuition system that applies different rates to students based on their grades. Previously, the state-run university was tuition free. Suh said students who do not study hard do not deserve the privilege of free education. He also increased the burden on students by having all lectures, assignments, and tests be conducted in English.
Suh also reformed the tenure system to disqualify professors with poor research accomplishments, saying the reform was necessary to put KAIST on a par with top foreign universities such as MIT, Stanford and Harvard.
As a result, life became more difficult for KAIST students and professors. Students say Suh’s policy has driven them to limitless competition. Their frustration was well expressed by a poster that a student put on a campus bulletin board following the third suicide on March 29. “If we fail to get good grades, we are labeled as losers,” it read. “We don’t have time to share our worries with friends. We are not happy on this campus.”
Suh remained unruffled by the third suicide. But the fourth one shook him deeply. In a hurriedly arranged press conference on Thursday evening, he promised to end the controversial tuition system starting next semester and ease the English-only requirement for lectures.
It is unfortunate if Suh’s well-intended reform efforts caused the student suicides. We believe he has been right to emphasize competition among KAIST students and professors. KAIST is meant to become a world-class science university. Hence it only accepts the brightest students in Korea. If KAIST gives its students and professors an easy ride, it will not be able to enhance its academic standards to the level of the world’s top universities.
Nevertheless, Suh should have taken more care to help students adapt to a competitive academic environment. He should have made mentoring, tutoring and counseling more available for students who needed help and should have ensured that students who have already failed were given a second chance.
To deal with the school’s crisis, its board of directors has called an emergency meeting for the coming Friday. We hope the directors come up with comprehensive measures to take better care of students without sacrificing competition.