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The repercussions of Korea’s low birth rates have swept into the education sector. On April 7th, the Ministry of Education (MOE) warned of a 28% reduction in hiring new elementary and middle school teachers by 2027 compared to 2023. Although the Korean Federation of Teachers' Associations strongly opposed it, the MOE announced the 2024- 2027 Medium to Long- Term Plan for Elementary and Middle School Teacher Supply and Demand on April 24th of this year. The government cited the faster- than- expected decline in the school- age population as their reason for formulating a plan for reducing the number of teachers. In line with this trend, both Changwon and Jinju have implemented a comprehensive reduction of foreign teachers.
The recruitment of foreign teachers in South Korean public schools is predominantly conducted through EPIK. EPIK (English Program in Korea) was established in 1995 with the goal of providing English conversation training to both Korean students and teachers as well as improving the Korean education system’s English teaching methodologies. It is implemented by 17 provincial education offices, including Changwon City. The system operates in such a way that when there is a demand for native English teachers, EPIK takes on the role of selection of candidates. The management and supervision of the English teachers’ following one- year contract is then transferred to the MOE.
EPIK is a program highly preferred by foreign teachers who prioritize work- life balance, offering greater job stability and a better working environment than private academies. In fact, on the official website of EPIK, under the 'Why EPIK' section, the program is promoted with the statement, “As a government employee, your job is secure with EPIK. You will never be released from your contract for budget or institutional problems nor for preferential reasons.” The challenge lies in the fact that financial support for recruited foreign teachers is managed by local governments, and the re- contracting of foreign teachers is contingent on the policy of the local municipality. The Lifelong Education Department of Changwon City Hall stated in a phone conversation with The Campus Journal, “Based on an evaluation by the Gyeongsangnam- do Council’s Education Committee, the EPIK program was deemed ineffective. Additionally, the Gyeongsangnam- do Office of Education also concluded that the program lacks effectiveness, leading to the decision to reduce foreign teacher recruitment.” They further mentioned, “The city provided financial support during the implementation of the EPIK program, and the main body responsible for the program is the Office of Education.” The Gyeongsangnam- do Office of Education announced in a phone conversation with The Campus Journal, “In the areas of Changwon and Jinju, we plan to reduce the relevant budget until next year and streamline related programs.”
Mr. M, who had been working as a native English teacher at a public elementary school in Changwon, also lost his opportunity for renewing his one- year contract. In an interview, he expressed his perspective, stating, “I don't know how the layoffs were conducted as I was never officially or explicitly informed of the cuts.” He continued, “I found out through a Kakao message group of Native English Teachers about the proposed lay- offs. I then contacted the head of the GOE for foreign teachers who couldn't tell me specifically what was happening, just that I would be 'told soon'.” Furthermore, Mr. M addressed the communication aspect regarding the re- contracting process, stating, “the whole thing seemed to be handled incredibly poorly. There was no official communication regarding the job cuts, it was merely a matter of 'talk and rumor' among the native teachers themselves.” EPIK responded to this by saying, “This is the first time we've heard of this,” and added, “anything that occurred after the contract is under the jurisdiction of the relevant Office of Education.” This statement was conveyed during a phone conversation with The Campus Journal.
Native English teachers who could not have their contracts renewed are now entering the private education market. Mr. M has also transitioned to a private academy. He mentioned, “I know of a few [teachers] that have been laid off. They've since relocated to other areas to continue working in the public sector, or found employment locally [in Changwon] in hagwons.” He expressed regret, saying, “I feel the biggest loss left by these cuts will be to the public school students, especially those who cannot or do not attend English academies. The connection and language immersion that only a native teacher can provide to these students will disappear and the education gap between hagwons and public school students will only increase.” Indeed, the average monthly tuition for English kindergartens targeting preschoolers is a substantial 1,239,000 KRW as of September 2023. This cost is close to 50% of the median household disposable income in 2021. In other words, given the high expenses associated with private English education led by native teachers, if the presence of native English teachers diminishes or disappears in public education, students from households unable to afford private education costs will lose the opportunity for communication with native English teachers.
Since the 2018 National College Entrance Exam, the MOE changed the English assessment method to an absolute evaluation system to prevent excessive competition in English and reduce private education costs. Currently, the government is also implementing policies such as banning 'Private Education Instructor Information Sessions' with the aim of normalizing public education. However, the recent decision by education authorities to reduce the hiring of native English teachers raises concerns of an ironic situation where the absence of native English teachers in public education could lead them to move to the private education market, exacerbating educational polarization. For the sake of stabilizing education, the government should pursue consistent policies to prevent a surge in the private education market and work towards the normalization of public education.
By Kim Min-seong, reporter email@example.com
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