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Race for med school heats up after hike in student quota

Suneung retakers, even college graduates likely to jump into race to study medicine; doctors mull nationwide strike

Feb. 12, 2024 - 09:44 By Park Jun-hee
An academic institution in Seoul hangs a banner promoting medical school admission, Tuesday. (Yonhap)

The race for medical school enrollment has kicked off nationwide following the government’s decision on Tuesday to increase the quota by 2,000 from the current 3,058 to ease the staffing problem and improve access to healthcare services, according to experts on Wednesday.

Woo Youn-cheol, a team leader at Jinhak Educational Assessment Research Institute, pointed out that there would be a particular increase in the number of retakers for the Suneung, or the country’s national college entrance exam.

“Applicants (vying for an entrance to medical schools) typically try year after year to get into the program, and reports that the government would lift the enrollment have floated since last year. ... Most of them might have already prepared for this year’s Suneung since then,” Woo told The Korea Herald.

Woo said many of the retakers would be either science or engineering department students at SKY, referring to the trio of elite colleges here: Seoul National University, Yonsei University and Korea University. He added that many of the academic institutions, locally known as hagwon, are making moves to attract prospective students and parents to enroll at their institution for counseling and offer tailor-made courses.

According to reports citing education authorities, inquiries on retaking the Suneung are rushing in all at once at academic institutions. Among those requesting counseling were reportedly incumbent teachers, SNU graduates and even corporate employees in their 30s.

University students are also considering making the same move.

“Being a doctor is not a walk in the park, but you are awarded social status and abundant money later. ... I should start looking for a math tutor who could help me understand calculus again so that I can prepare for the Sunueng,” one anonymous comment read on Everytime, an online community platform for university students here.

Apart from the obsession with medical school, the education pundit noted that the nation’s STEM talent will also flock to schools of dentistry, as well as Colleges of Oriental Medicine and Pharmacy.

“Science students usually give up on being doctors because they have scored one or two points lower than medical students. But since the chances of getting into med schools have grown, STEM students or to-be science majors will shift to majors of other medical fields,” Woo explained.

However, Health Minister Cho Kyoo-hong said that he thinks the medical school obsession will continue “only for now,” adding that he would team up with the Education Ministry to prevent brain drain in science and engineering departments.

Huh Chang-deog, a sociology professor at Yeungnam University, said more people would strive to be doctors due to their obsession with employability.

“It reflects how people want to land a profession that they can work for a long time without having to worry about the retirement age and, of course, more money,” Huh told The Korea Herald.

“Overconcentration of talent means to-be doctors would have to compete in a saturated market, which would later alleviate the craze for medical schools. But not for the time being,” he said.

The Education Ministry said Wednesday that it was officially notified of the increase in enrollment by the Ministry of Health and Welfare late Tuesday.

The ministry added that it would survey medical schools’ demand for the number of additional spaces they need for the 2025 academic year by next month. It plans to notify each college of the final quotas in April.

The latest measure will affect current third-grade high school students applying for college admissions for the 2025 school year.

Candidates for early admissions will apply in September and be notified by December. The application for regular admissions is in February next year.

Meanwhile, the Health Ministry raised the national health crisis level to alert -- the third highest in the four-tier warning system -- as doctors warned of a nationwide strike in protest of the decision.