Fewer South Koreans treading tertiary path

Nursing student Jang Dong Hae practising on a dummy during a lesson at Bucheon University in South Korea. He was formerly a finance undergraduate.
Nursing student Jang Dong Hae practising on a dummy during a lesson at Bucheon University in South Korea. He was formerly a finance undergraduate.PHOTO: REUTERS
Relatives of students sitting entrance exams yesterday praying for success at a Buddhist temple in Seoul.
Relatives of students sitting entrance exams yesterday praying for success at a Buddhist temple in Seoul.PHOTO: REUTERS

More switching or moving to vocational courses because of better employment rates

BUCHEON (South Korea) • Living in a country obsessed with academic success, Mr Jang Dong Hae did what every South Korean parent dreads their child would do. He dropped out of university a year into a finance degree as he doubted it would get him a job in a top firm.

However, five years on, and midway through a nursing course at a community college, Mr Jang's parents are happy with his decision and his employment prospects are good.

"First, when I told my parents, they asked me: 'Why would you quit the university that you are in now and restart?'," Mr Jang, 25, said at the campus in Bucheon, on the outskirts of Seoul.

CHANGING MINDSET

Parents' ambition to send their kids to good universities has peaked and is slowly declining. Little by little, people are now thinking that not everyone should go to universities.

PROFESSOR SON JONG CHIL, an economist at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in Seoul

"As the employment rate is much higher than other majors, my parents support me and really like it."

Their priorities will have been influenced by the unemployment rate.

In February more than 11 per cent of those aged between 15 and 29 years were jobless - the highest level since the late 1990s.

By last month, it had come down to 7.4 per cent, but it was still more than double the overall unemployment rate.

Mr Jang, who pays for his nursing tuition with money earned from part-time jobs, has joined a growing number of young South Koreans who are forgoing a more prestigious university education in favour of either vocational training or seeking work after high school.

The number of high school graduates who go on to tertiary education has fallen from 77 per cent in 2008 to 70.8 per cent this year.

While that is still higher than the average for the developed nations in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, high entrance exam scores do not carry the same promise of future success that they once did.

"Parents' ambition to send their kids to good universities has peaked and is slowly declining," said Professor Son Jong Chil, an economist at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in Seoul.

"Little by little, people are now thinking that not everyone should go to university."

The "Youth Hope Fund" recently launched by President Park Geun Hye is a sign of the hard times faced by young South Koreans. It aims to help create jobs for them with support from the private sector.

Last month, Samsung Group and Hyundai Motor Group executives donated a combined 45 billion Korean won (S$55.1 million) to the fund.

Unable to find jobs, more university graduates and dropouts, such as Mr Jang, are entering two- or three-year vocational schools to gain qualifications in nursing, physical therapy, social welfare and early childhood education.

Caregivers are in high demand due in part to South Korea's ageing population and Bucheon University which, despite the name, is categorised as a junior college, said it has an 88 per cent job placement rate for nursing graduates.

During the past three years, the number of university graduates who have gained admission to vocational school has risen by 25 per cent to 1,379, according to the Korean Council of University College Education.

It is a minuscule percentage of the total number of students entering universities and colleges - 356,000 and 214,000 respectively - but still reveals some change in the mindset among the youth.

More would make the switch if they could. About 40 holders of bachelor degrees have applied for the five places set aside for them next semester in Bucheon's nursing programme.

"I think I've made a right decision," said Mr Jang.

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 13, 2015, with the headline 'Fewer South Koreans treading tertiary path'. Print Edition | Subscribe