College brain drain spells disasterTwo recent high-profile cases of college applicants attempting to switch courses — and career trajectories — before officially enrolling at natural sciences and engineering schools highlight the ever-deepening crisis these colleges face in Korea today. In the first, the youngest high school student ever to pass Seoul National University’s early admission test decided not to go to the prestigious school’s natural sciences and engineering college after he was subsequently accepted to a dental college at another university — paving the way for a legal battle. In the second, the parents of a high school student who passed the same test for the same college protested when SNU obstructed her move to a medical school. However, this is not a new trend. Several years ago, a student who graduated with honors from Pohang University of Science and Technology made headlines by transferring to a medical school elsewhere.
This is creating a veritable brain drain and a shortage of students heading for pillar industries related to science and engineering. In fact, the high scores required for admittance to medical schools testify to their soaring popularity, while engineering courses are increasingly being viewed as a less lucrative insurance plan for those who fail to make the grade. The young SNU student even came out and said he wanted to ditch the course to ensure a “better future” for himself, while the Postech student said that “a graduate with a doctorate degree in engineering must worry about facing an uncertain future” due to the difficult job market.
As such, more needs to be done to rebalance the nation’s concentration of talent. Medical science is a high value-added discipline that should be considered a mainstay of the nation’s future economy, while a brain drain in engineering threatens to undermine the nation’s manufacturing sector.
The sector faces several daunting challenges, such a lack of creativity and rising competition from China. Parents may join the list as another hurdle to overcome, as even Hwang Chang-gyu, the former president of Samsung Electronics, admitted he had resisted his parents’ wishes that he attend medical school by applying for SNU’s electrical engineering department. But the socalled miracle performed by Korea’s manufacturing industry would not have been possible without figures like Hwang, dubbed “Mr. Semiconductor,” and other top-caliber students from past decades. As such, keeping these sectors well-stocked with talent must be seen as a more pressing concern than chasing Nobel Prizes.