Elite South Korean University Rattled by Suicides
Students at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology mourning fellow students who had committed suicide.
By MARK McDONALD
Published: May 22, 2011
DAEJEON, South Korea — It has been a sad and gruesome semester at South Korea’s most prestigious university, and with final exams beginning Monday the school is still reeling from the recent suicides of four students and a popular professor.
Academic pressures can be ferocious at the university, the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, known as Kaist, and anxious school psychologists have expanded their counseling services since the suicides. The school president also rescinded a controversial policy that humiliated many students by charging them extra tuition if their grades dipped.
After the last of the student deaths, on April 7, the Kaist student council issued an impassioned statement that said “a purple gust of wind” had blown through campus.
“Day after day we are cornered into an unrelenting competition that smothers and suffocates us,” the council said. “We couldn’t even spare 30 minutes for our troubled classmates because of all our homework.
“We no longer have the ability to laugh freely.”
Young people in South Korea are a chronically unhappy group. A recent survey found them to be — for the third year in a row — the unhappiest subset among countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. The Education Ministry in Seoul said 146 students committed suicide last year, including 53 in junior high and 3 in elementary school.
Psychologists at the university said very few students had sought counseling in recent days because of the time crunch brought on by finals. Ironically, during this period of maximum stress, therapists were handling only a handful of cases, mostly for anxiety.
“Remember that the students here are still very young and they haven’t had much experience with unpredictable situations,” said Kim Mi-hee, a staff psychologist at the campus counseling center, who estimated that about 10 percent of Kaist students had come to the center for help. “To deal with problems they tend to lock into rumination mode.
“But they’re so smart and so bright, they actually cope with stress pretty well. They have great capabilities of insight, so once they do get treatment, it can go pretty fast.”
But there is still no full-time psychiatrist on call, and Kaist professors receive no training on how to spot overstressed or depressed students. Even the entryway to the counseling suite can feel somewhat less than welcoming. Recent visitors found the front door partially blocked by a dead tree in a broken ceramic planter.
South Korea as a whole ranks first among O.E.C.D. nations in suicide and is routinely among the leaders in developed nations. Subway stations in Seoul have barriers to prevent people from jumping in front of arriving trains, and eight bridges in the capital have installed closed-circuit suicide-watch cameras.
Suicides of singers, models, beloved actors, athletes, millionaire heiresses and other prominent figures have become almost routine in South Korea. A former president, Roh Moo-hyun, threw himself off a cliff in 2009 after losing face with his countrymen.
But the suicides of the four Kaist undergraduates — three jumped to their deaths and a 19-year-old freshman overdosed on pills — have stunned the nation in a profound and poignant way. (The professor, a biologist who was reportedly being audited for the misuse of research funds, hanged himself on April 10.)
The competition for a place in a leading university begins in middle school for most South Korean students. More than 80 percent of Korean young people go to college, and parents here spend more money per child on extra classes and outside tutoring — including military-style “cram schools” — than any other country in the O.E.C.D.
The pressure builds to a single day in November, when a national college entrance exam is held. Some mothers pray at churches or temples throughout the day as their children take the test, which is given only once a year and lasts nine hours. The South Korean Air Force even adjusts its flight schedule so as not to disturb the test takers.
The ultimate goal for most students is acceptance at one of the so-called SKY schools — Seoul National, Korea or Yonsei universities. In South Korea’s status-conscious society, a degree from a SKY school is nearly a guarantee of a big career and lifelong prosperity. Pedigree is everything.
But Kaist is different. The university pays no regard to the national exam and instead recruits almost all of its students from among the elite seniors at special science-oriented high schools. Kaist admits only about 1,000 freshmen each year. A personal interview, high school grades and recommendations from principals count the most.
Kaist students are academically gifted, to be sure, but they are also seen as the future leaders of Korea’s vaunted technology-driven economy. In a sense, once they gain entrance to Kaist, the students become national treasures. As a result, many feel a huge (and sometimes crushing) burden to live up to the country’s expectations. The statement by the Kaist student leaders even referred to Kaist students as “the future luminaries of Korea’s sciences.”
The pressures can become too much for some students, especially those who have always been academic superstars but suddenly find themselves struggling to excel against much stiffer competition. “They’ve always been No. 1 in high school, but once they get to Kaist maybe they’re No. 40, or No. 400, and they realize they can’t possibly keep up,” said Oh Kyung-ja, a Harvard-trained professor of clinical psychology at Yonsei University. “The competition can be cruel.”
Suh Nam-pyo, a renowned mechanical engineer who taught for many years at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, became president of Kaist in 2006. He soon instituted a series of changes aimed at modeling Kaist after M.I.T. and other world-class science and research universities.
He mandated, for example, that all courses would be taught in English. That move led to campus-wide consternation because not all students and faculty members were fully fluent in English.
Mr. Suh also engineered a system that required students to pay extra tuition for each hundredth of a point that their grade point average fell below 3.0 (based on a 4.3-point system). All students pay a token fee each semester, Kaist administrators said, but otherwise their tuition is free, financed by government scholarships.
Under the so-called punitive tuition program, a bad semester could cost a student’s family thousands of dollars.
The program, which was applauded at first, has since led to deep humiliation and anxiety among many students. Those who struggled and lost their full rides suddenly saw themselves as losers. Some critics, calling it ruthless, even blamed the program for the recent suicides.
Mr. Suh, faced with withering criticism, recently ended most parts of the tuition plan, and the school announced that some courses would now be taught in English and Korean.