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Ministry eases rules for protesting med students

Education Minister Lee Ju-ho enters the briefing room at the Government Complex Seoul to announce medical school guidelines to prevent students from failing. (Yonhap)
Education Minister Lee Ju-ho enters the briefing room at the Government Complex Seoul to announce medical school guidelines to prevent students from failing. (Yonhap)

Five months into medical students' boycott of classes in protest over the government's decision to increase the quota for students at the schools, the Ministry of Education announced guidelines Wednesday to grant universities the flexibility needed to prevent these students from failing out due to their prolonged absence.

Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Education Lee Ju-ho said at the Government Complex Seoul that schools can individually apply different timing, criteria and standards to determine whether a medical student has failed.

Such a decision comes amid growing concerns that the absence of thousands of medical students countrywide could lead to them facing grade retention en masse, which may result in a huge manpower shortage within some years.

"If medical students flunk en masse, it would delay the transition of students into the medical professions, which could lead to a disruption in the supply of health care workers. As more new students will be entering the university next year, unless universities proactively prepare and take action, it will be difficult for our students to access classes and practicums in a better educational environment," said Lee.

With the new rule, whether a student has failed would be decided by the end of the year, an expanded term from the current semester basis.

In light of the fact that most medical students were unable to complete their coursework in the first semester of this year, universities can switch from a semester system to an academic year system, which consists of two semesters of 15 weeks per semester. This will allow them to make up for lost time by the end of the academic year instead of having to finish scoring grades in the first semester.

In order to secure the number of class days, the government will also allow a three-semester system from the current two-semester program. If the number of class days cannot be fulfilled despite the new measure, it will be possible to reduce the number of class days set by the Enforcement Decree of the Higher Education Act to two weeks per academic year from "more than 30 weeks in each academic year."

Classes can also be offered at night, remotely, on weekends and even completely remotely if necessary. A temporary exemption for students who receive flunk some subjects will be available for this year only so that they do not have to repeat the entire year due to lack of payment.

Depending on the conditions of each school, an I-credit -- incomplete credit -- system has been introduced to allow students to make up for learning deficiencies within a certain period of time.

In particular, considering the increase in enrollment next year, universities must come up with measures such as giving first-year medical students the opportunity to take courses in the second semester or higher grades so that they do not receive an F grade in some courses.

The education minister emphasized that the guideline was not created to give medical students special treatment, but as a measure to prevent the lives and health of the public from being jeopardized by a shortage of medical personnel.

He also urged students to stop their collective action and return to class, pledging that the government and school would do everything in their power to make sure students can continue their education without worries of being flunked.

South Korea decided to increase the number of seats for 40 medical schools nationwide next year to amount to 4,567, up 1,509 from the current quota, according to the Education Ministry.

This marks the first medical school quota hike in 27 years, since the establishment of a medical school at Jeju University. The limit has been capped at 3,058 students per year since 2006. The number was a reduction from 3,507 to assuage doctors protesting the policy of separating the prescribing and dispensing of drugs at the time.

By Choi Jeong-yoon (