For South Korea’s top students, smart money is on medical school over chips


A South Korean plan to greatly increase medical school seats has helped prompt more top students to enroll for exam-prep studies to become doctors – over the once sure-fire bet of trying to become engineers who make semiconductors.

The operators at some of the nation’s largest cram schools have set up new courses for those looking to take exams in November to enter a university medical programme next year, when South Korea plans to increase the number of slots by 2,000 from the current 3,058 to alleviate a shortage of doctors.

“When students think about their lives after graduation, their preference lies with medical schools,” said Lim Sung-ho, head of one of South Korea’s biggest cram schools, the Jongro Hagwon Academy. The overall number of med school applicants is expected to increase from 9,532 in 2024 to 15,851 next year, according to Jongro Academy.

For those already in the mix, many are rejecting entry into South Korea’s top engineering schools that virtually guarantee jobs at Samsung Electronics Co and SK Hynix Inc, enticed by what many see as better job security and higher pay in the medical field.

“Although the government is implementing policies to foster the semiconductor industry, it is failing to provide students with prospects for mid- to long-term career paths,” Lim said.

Data showed that 26% of students admitted into the computer engineering department of Seoul National University for the 2024 school year decided not to enroll in the first round of regular admissions, while no one gave up their spots in the medical school at the nation’s top public university, according to SNU’s website.

At two other top schools, Yonsei University and Korea University, 71% of students rejected initial offers for entry into departments offering majors in semiconductors, displays and smart mobility, compared with 38% who did so last year, their data showed. Entry into these departments is all but certain to lead to jobs at partnered companies, such as Samsung and SK.

South Korea doctors, who rank in the developed world as some of the highest paid relative to average workers, are threatening to walk off the job in protest over the plan to add more physicians. About 2,700 interns and residents at five major general hospital groups said they will submit resignation letters Feb 19 and walk off the job the following day.

South Korean medical schools are primarily undergraduate programmes that offer a six-year curriculum. They have often lost out on top talent due to the limited number of seats, which has remained unchanged for nearly two decades. This has helped keep the number of doctors in the country relatively low compared with other Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries, while wages remained relatively high.

OECD data showed the annual average gross income of self-employed specialists was 6.8 times more than that of the average worker in South Korea as of 2021, which is the widest gap among OECD member countries.

There is also more job security in the medical field. The average age that South Korean workers can be forced into retirement is 49.4, while self-employed doctors have no mandatory retirement age, according to data by the South Korea’s statistical office.

The public also approves of the plan to increase the number of doctors, polling data have shown. A weekly tracking survey released by Gallup Korea on Friday showed 76% of respondents had positive views of the government’s plan while only 16% see it as negative. President Yoon Suk Yeol’s approval rating also rebounded to 33% from a nine-month low of 29% two weeks ago as he stood his ground on the medical school issue.

Prime Minister Han Duck-soo said on Feb 19 the government would fully expand telemedicine if doctors start walking off the job. Over the weekend, Han urged doctors to refrain from the collective labour action since it could jeopardise lives, adding the government would respond firmly and in accordance with laws if they decide to launch a labor action.

Yonsei Severance, one of the country’s largest hospital groups, is adjusting its surgery schedules after trainee doctors at the facility submitted their resignation letters with plans to walk off the job Monday, according to Yonhap News agency.

The government in theory is able to use the Medical Services Act to revoke the licenses of doctors over prolonged labour actions that threaten the health-care system. – Bloomberg

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