[Column] S. Korea’s low birth rate means its no time to gamble with the future

Posted on : 2022-10-06 17:24 KST Modified on : 2022-10-06 17:24 KST
The 0.75 total fertility rate is a sign of resignation — a message that people don’t feel able to bring children into a country where the individual is forced to carry responsibility for the outcomes of endless competition
Lee Ju-ho, the candidate to become education minister and deputy prime minister, speaks to reporters as he heads into his office on Sept. 30 to prep for his confirmation hearing. (Yonhap)
Lee Ju-ho, the candidate to become education minister and deputy prime minister, speaks to reporters as he heads into his office on Sept. 30 to prep for his confirmation hearing. (Yonhap)
By Jeon Jeong-yun, social policy editor

A president’s appointments send a message in and of themselves. The president informs the public who he or she views as the optimal people to execute the administration’s vision and policies, and it is their history and qualifications that allow the public to envision what kind of country the president is seeking to create.

If there is any area where the South Korean president ought to be sending a message in 2022, it has to do with measures to address the population decline.

In the second quarter of this year, the total fertility rate (TFR) was 0.75. That means the average woman is expected to have less than one child over the course of her lifetime. This threat of population loss is a focus of global attention as a form of “collective suicide.”

Korea’s population decline is based on a complex combination of social, economic, and cultural factors and is impossible to explain in simplistic terms. But there seems to be little disagreement that South Koreans feel more despairing than hopeful, and that education is one of the key reasons why.

We talk about “public education,” but we also boast various forms of special purpose high schools and autonomous private high schools in the name of “excellence.” They end up having an enormous impact on our college entrance examinations.

Because of that, students are doing the after-school academy rounds almost from the time they are still in diapers, all for the sake of the high school entrance exams.

Different studies have shown that the average Korean student begins receiving private education around the age of four. Last year, the average amount spent per capita on private education was 367,000 won per month, but it’s common to find families that spend in the range of 1 million to 2 million won monthly.

Thanks to this kind of study, an estimated 69.3% of Koreans aged 25 to 34 had received or were receiving a university education as of 2021. For all that effort, the employment rate for Koreans aged 20 to 29 was just 57.4% the same year, and one-third of those jobs were irregular positions.

Those households that are fortunate enough to earn the median income would need to save up for 17.6 years (PIR) without spending a dime of their salary (based on June levels) to purchase a mid-range apartment in Seoul.

If we listen to the loud voices represented by the Ministry of Education and courts, it would appear that most Koreans support this kind of endless competition as a matter of “autonomy” and “freedom.” We tend to assign the parents responsibility for child-raising and education, accepting it as “our fault” when we go broke after all those steep opportunity costs paid by parents and children alike end up with the offspring being highly educated and unemployed.

But compared with people taking to their megaphones to call for their share, it’s far scarier to see the anger of people going hungry in quiet resignation. The 0.75 TFR is a sign of this resignation: a message that people don’t feel able to bring children into a country where the individual is forced to carry responsibility for the outcomes of endless competition.

Amid all of this, Minister of Education Park Soon-ae ended up stepping down after announcing plans to begin schooling for students at 5 years of age. People were already feeling reluctant to bring children into a world with no future, and Park ended up putting her foot in it by trying to force children to study just five years after their birth — in the hopes of getting the ones who did survive the competition to join the industry workforce that one extra year earlier.

At this point, President Yoon Suk-yeol ought to be showing his staunch commitment to do whatever it takes to make this a society that people want to bring children into. So it sent an even more troubling message when after all his reflection, the name he presented on Sept. 29 as a nominee for education minister was that of Lee Ju-ho.

The person he was calling on to serve at the heart of the Korean education system was the same Korea Development Institute professor who had served as minister and vice minister in the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology during the Lee Myung-bak administration.

The decision to rehire the architect of that administration’s education policy might have been consistent with Yoon’s identity as someone who pledged during his election run to “reuse” the Lee-era education policies. But it’s deeply troubling to consider the kind of quiet ripples it causes to have this sort of revolving door appointment at a time when the TFR has fallen below 0.8 and Park Soon-ae was forced to step down.

Who is Lee Ju-ho? He was the minister of education who declared that education was a “market” rather than part of the public sphere.

He created the autonomous private high schools with an emphasis on “autonomy in school management,” but he also ruined many ordinary high schools. He instituted standardized scholastic aptitude exams and shared their results publicly, ranking schools and their students.

According to 2018 figures from the Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education, ordinary high schools (204) accounted for 8.5% of students in the top 10% among middle schools. Autonomous private high schools — of which there were 23 at the time — represented 18.5%.

According to a 2020 survey of around 5,000 second-year high school students by the group World Without Worries about Shadow Education, the proportion of students whose families were spending an average of over 1 million won a month on private education was 13.3% for general high schools and 43.9% for autonomous private high schools. Students and their parents are being drawn into an “everyone for themselves” education, whether they agree with the “education as a market” approach or not.

This time, Lee Ju-ho is talking about “university autonomy.” In remarks on Friday, he said he planned to “permit maximum autonomy and freedom” to actors in the educational sphere. He is reentering the scene at a time when the shadows of Lee administration-era education still loom large.

One more false step by him could push the accelerator down, sending Korea past the point of no return with its collective suicide 10 years from now — regardless of who becomes the next president.

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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