International interns, adding value to Birmingham City Council

Seo Young is one of 10-15 civil servants from South Korea currently studying in Birmingham

Seo Young is one of 10-15 civil servants from South Korea currently studying in Birmingham


The European and International Affairs team host a number of interns over the course of any given year. Their roles are wide ranging: from helping out on the Frankfurt Christmas Market, to supporting the upkeep of the website, to undertaking bespoke pieces of research. The team has recently hosted Seo Young, a high-level civil working for the Office of Prime Minister in Sejong, South Korea and currently studying a Masters in Public Policy at the University of Birmingham. Seo was happy to secure a placement with the team as there were obvious synergies with his professional background giving him an opportunity to apply his knowledge. During his stay, he has produced a piece of ‘light touch’ research comparing youth services in Birmingham, Johannesburg, Chicago and Seoul and has produced a number of recommendations/ideas for the youth service in Birmingham to consider going forward.

As well as being a wonderful opportunity to draw on Seo’s expertise in the civil service through the research, it has also been a really interesting opportunity to find out his impressions of living in Birmingham over the past two years and discover whether his experience matched his expectations. Interestingly, he said that the image of Birmingham as a grimy industrial metropolis still prevails amongst colleagues from South Korea. Its renaissance as a dynamic, modern, diverse youthful city came as a pleasant surprise.

Seo’s children also have formed a positive impression of life in Birmingham at their local primary school, where they were pleased to find out that there is not the intensive yearly exam system which exists in Korea. Childhood stress is a big concern in Korea with enormous pressure on children of all ages to achieve. Maths and Science form the central pillar of Korean education and English is learnt from the age of four in private settings and then from nine at public school. Seo notes that his children are about two years’ ahead in Maths compared to their Birmingham classmates. Incredibly, there is over 90% school enrolment rate, so youth unemployment is not a serious problem in South Korea for 15-21 year olds, so the levels of youth unemployment here came as somewhat of a surprise. There are however, similar problems in Seoul with graduate underemployment due to skills mismatches and insufficient graduate jobs to meet demand.

A strong work ethic is pervasive in the Korean workplace, helping to explain the economic miracle that Korea has achieved, climbing to 10th place in the global economy after the economic decimation caused by the Korean war (1950-1953). Central Government civil servants regularly exceed their stipulated 40 hours, with junior staff sometimes working a 12+ hour day. Seo has been happy to get back some work-life balance whilst here in the UK.

He also gained a positive impression of our National Health Service citing the treatment of long term and serious illnesses which are not covered by national insurance contributions in South Korea. However, access to the health service in South Korea is a lot easier than he has found here in the UK.