Court refuses injunction on medical school expansion in South Korea

South Korea to have its first med school quota hike in 27 years, with the medical sector to appeal the court's decision.

Park Jun-hee

Park Jun-hee

The Korea Herald


This image shows the Korean Medical Association's headquarters in Yongsan-gu, central Seoul. With the obstacles now cleared, the Seoul High Court's ruling allows the government to proceed with its contentious plan to add 2,000 more admission seats at medical schools nationwide, despite facing vehement opposition from doctors and students. PHOTO: YONHAP/THE KOREA HERALD

May 17, 2024

SEOUL – A South Korean appellate court on Thursday rejected an injunction sought by the medical community to halt the implementation of a planned student quota increase at medical schools nationwide.

With the obstacles now cleared, the Seoul High Court’s ruling allows the government to proceed with its contentious plan to add 2,000 more admission seats at medical schools nationwide, despite facing vehement opposition from doctors and students.

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, down from 3,507, to assuage doctors protesting the policy of separating the prescribing and dispensing of drugs at the time.

In its ruling on an injunction filed by the medical sector, the court said medical professors, junior doctors and medical student hopefuls are considered third parties and are not direct parties to the disposition of this case.

The court, however, viewed that medical students “were eligible to be plaintiffs,” explaining that they had “interests protected by law, but dismissed the request due to the significant impact it could cause on public welfare.”

Following the decision, Prime Minister Han Duck-soo said the government “will swiftly conclude with the related procedures (left) for college admissions for the 2025 academic year so that no more confusion will arise” in a televised public address.

“The main trial remains, but today’s decision granted the government the go-ahead to proceed with the expansion plan it has pushed (for months), (allowing it to) overcome a major hurdle,” Han said.

Under the plan, each university will have to reflect the change in its college admissions by the end of this month, given that the college admissions process for the 2025 academic year is approaching.

Han emphasized that the government will accelerate the process of revising university regulations and establishing admission quotas for each university.

Han also urged universities that are still revising regulations or require reconsideration to promptly fulfill the necessary procedures in compliance with legal obligations.

“As per our original schedule, we will actively support the approval of university admission plans by the Korean Council for University Education by the end of May, along with the announcement of admission quotas for each university,” Han said.

The court’s decision regarding next year’s increase in medical school admissions effectively has held the key to whether or not it will proceed.

Despite remaining legal procedures such as a potential appeal to the Supreme Court and the main trial, the timeline involved suggests that reaching a conclusion by the end of this month — when individual university admissions guidelines are due to be finalized and announced — will be challenging.

Although the government has expressed much relief in response to the court’s decision, the ongoing rift between the medical circle is likely to widen, according to observers, as they have repeatedly demanded scrapping the expansion plan and discussing the quota hike from scratch.

Thursday’s ruling comes after the court demanded late last month that the government submit related evidence and documents supporting the quota hike by May 10 while reviewing an injunction request by the medical community to halt the expansion plan.

The government submitted 49 documents and pieces of evidence, including the minutes and transcripts of expert committee meetings under the Health and Medical Policy Deliberation Committee and the source of information it used to decide on increasing the seats by 2,000.

The medical community has continuously claimed that the quota hike wasn’t determined based on “scientific grounds” and that it would lead to the deterioration of education and the collapse of the country’s well-regarded medical system.

Reacting with fury over the decision, Lee Byung-cheol, the legal representative for the medical circle, said he would appeal the court decision and bring the case to the Supreme Court in a notice sent to reporters later in the day.

The Korean Medical Association — the largest doctors group here with some 140,000 members — said it would release a statement over the ruling Friday morning.

Meanwhile, the emergency committee made up of professors at 19 medical schools has previously warned that it would suspend treatment for a week if the government finalizes the expansion plan. Junior doctors and students who have left their worksites and classrooms for months now have also shown little sign of return.

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