Thousands of Korean med students could be forced to repeat a grade amid mass class boycott

Posted on : 2024-03-18 16:46 KST Modified on : 2024-03-18 16:46 KST
Out of 18,793 registered medical students in the country, 13,697 had submitted (valid or invalid) applications for leaves of absence
A student walks into a campus building at a medical school in Seoul on Feb. 19. (Yonhap) 
A student walks into a campus building at a medical school in Seoul on Feb. 19. (Yonhap) 

It’s now been over a month since medical students in Korea walked out of classrooms in protest of the government’s policy initiative to increase the annual national medical school admissions quota by 2,000 students. With the collective actions amounting to mass absences throughout the country, there are mounting concerns about a large number of students flunking and thus being forced to repeat a grade. 

On Feb. 17, around 160 students at Wonkwang University School of Medicine tendered leaves of absence paperwork to join the mass resignation movement of hospital residents and interns. This sparked a chain reaction at other universities around the country. The number of students who have submitted valid leave of absence applications (as of Saturday) stands at 7,594. That is a whopping 40.4% of all medical school students in the country (18,793). When considering the technically invalid applications for a leave of absence, that number jumps to 13,697 (as of the end of February). 

While the Ministry of Education publicly emphasizes dialogue and persuasion, it continues to move to implement the quota increase of 2,000 by allocating additional seats at universities throughout the country.

Appearing on a KBS radio broadcast on Sunday, Education Minister Lee Ju-ho said, “We must absolutely avoid a situation where a high number of students fail to pass.” 

However, Lee also declared that the allocations of additional seats “must be implemented as quickly as possible to avoid chaos and confusion.” 

Yet as medical students continue their collective walk-out, it appears a mass flunking will be unavoidable, putting a dent in the government’s plan to increase the number of passing students. 

According to current laws relating to higher education, medical students must attend at least 30 weeks of classes per year, or 15 weeks per semester, in order to pass. If schools hold classes throughout the scheduled summer vacation, they can delay the start of the new semester — which was supposed to have started at the beginning in March — to the end of May. Realistically, however, when considering the schedules of medical professors, who have to balance lectures with treatment, and the practical workload that students can manage, classes have to start by the end of March or in early April at the latest. 

If all the students partaking in the walk-out movement end up being held back a grade, it will cause considerable disruptions. Their courses will overlap with those of the incoming class scheduled to begin courses in 2025, causing large classrooms that will considerably diminish the quality of their medical education. Seniors who were supposed to have graduated will be ineligible for the national medical exam, which will lead to a massive shortage of available residents and interns in the field. 

“Whether they take a leave of absence or officially flunk, universities will be forced to hold courses with double the number of students in the following academic year. When considering the faculty, the number of lecture halls, and the available equipment for practical training, this will not be easy. We may even be unable to accommodate the new class of incoming students,” said a dean of a university outside the greater Seoul area. 

This is why people are calling for the government and the medical community to come to the negotiation table. 

“If medical school students and the government cannot reach a compromise, and the current class of students ends up flunking this semester’s courses, it will be a lose-lose situation for both parties,” said the president of a university outside Seoul. 

“The two parties must engage in dialogue and find common ground.”

By Kim Min-je, staff reporter; Park Go-eun, staff reporter

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