South Korea recently made the Wall Street Journal with a string of suicides at KAIST, a prestigious South Korean university where a friend of mine is a guest lecturer. I’ve been following his Facebook comments with interest as the debate rages about what action KAIST can take to stop the problem.
Since January of this year, four students and one professor have committed suicide at KAIST, which is a highly-regarded technological university in South Korea. The university recently changed their scholarship policy and some students and faculty at the Korean university believe the suicides are linked to the stricter scholarship policy, which has since been abolished.
“Many students, professors and media have blamed the rash of suicides at KAIST on a policy instituted by university President Suh Nam-pyo in which students lose their tuition-free status if their grade point average dips below 3.0 on a 4.0 scale. The farther the grade dips, the more of their tuition the student has to pay.”
While KAIST’s scholarship policy may seem standard to those outside of South Korea, South Korea has an extremely high rate of academic pressure and peers seem to be harder on one another than they are in other countries. Competition is the norm and it is extremely difficult for South Korean students to gain admission to KAIST.
South Korea has the highest suicide rate in the nation, and the suicides at KAIST are higher than the national average per capita (as of this year).
If the comments on my friend’s Facebook page about KAIST are any indication, KAIST students, faculty, and even the president seem at a loss about what do to change the momentum on campus to a more positive note. There seem to be many rumors about what happens when a student or employee visits a counselor—a visit might stay on a student’s permanent record, for example—and rumors about how the university is handling the situation.
Dr. Seo, the president of KAIST, has reverted to the former scholarship policy when all students’ tuition was paid for by the government and it appears that he will more than likely need to make other changes as well.
The problem of suicide in Korea is not just limited to KAIST; in my opinion, it’s hard to determine whether the problem is all just academic competition, or whether it is a lack of access to basic counseling and medication needs due to the stigma of mental illness in South Korean society.