By Jenna Gibson
With South Korea’s low birth rate on the mind of scholars and policymakers, the country’s schools have found themselves on the front lines of the country’s demographic crisis.
Enrollment in elementary schools around the country in 2015 was 2,672,843. In 2000, that number was 33 percent higher, at 4,020,141. And as the 2016 school year started, 20 percent of South Korea’s 6,218 elementary schools had fewer than 10 students enroll for first grade.
Universities, which depend on continued enrollment for funding, are particularly worried – by 2019, the number of high school graduates will fall below the enrollment capacity of Korean universities for the first time.
Rural schools are especially vulnerable to these changes. A New York Times story last year highlighted this problem through a 12-year-old boy in a small eastern Korean town who was the only student enrolled at his elementary school. This school will soon become one of the 3,700 Korean schools that have closed their doors since 1982 because they simply don’t have enough students to stay open.
This follows the trend of urbanization that has transformed the country since the end of the Korean War. According to the World Bank, South Korea’s rural population has fallen from a peak of 19.6 million in 1966 to 8.8 million in 2015, meaning just 17.5 percent of the population live outside of urban centers. And in some rural counties, up to 40 percent of residents are over 65.
For the small schools that stay open, this trend means students get more attention from teachers and administrators. According to the Korea Joongang Daily, in 2016, elementary schools have an average of 22.4 students per classroom, middle schools had 27.4 and high schools had 29.3. This is a huge drop from 1990, when these schools saw averages of 41.4, 50.2 and 52.8 students per class respectively.
“My countryside schools are struggling today due to low enrollment. Despite the difficulties, every one of our staff strives to inspire our students through teaching. Since we have a small number of students, we can maintain a close relationship with students in all aspects of our education,” one principal whose school was scheduled to shut down last year wrote on their website.
But as these schools begin to close and consolidate, students are forced to endure long commutes to neighboring towns or move into school dormitories.
Meanwhile, the Korean government is trying everything possible to boost the birth rate. New short-term emergency measures announced by the Welfare Ministry last month included greater allowances for couples undergoing infertility treatment as well as expanded paternity allowances for fathers expecting a second child. In addition, the ministry is encouraging companies to let their workers go home earlier, in the hopes of alleviating Korea’s notoriously skewed work-life balance.
The Korean government has invested more than 80 trillion won ($70 billion) in these types of programs since 2006. And the country may be making progress, albeit slowly. After years of decline, the fertility rate in Korea increased from 1.19 babies per woman in 2013 to 1.21 in 2014, and increased again to 1.24 in 2015. This still leaves Korea with the second lowest birth rate in the OECD, ahead of Israel.
Experts attribute the low birth rate to several factors, including the sky-high cost of education and childcare along with an increasing interest among women to focus on their careers and delay starting a family. In 2015, the average age for a woman having her first child was 31.2, up from 26.5 in 1995. Another factor could be Korea’s youth unemployment rate, which hit 9.2 percent in August.
In a recent column on the issue, the Korea Times put the situation bluntly: “Human resources are almost the sole assets of South Korea that does not produce a single drop of oil and has no particular natural resources. The low birthrate and aging only brings about the vicious cycle of a shortage in the workforce and a reduction in consumption that will naturally lead to the slough of stagnation.”
As these factors continue to depress the birth rate, more schools will find themselves with empty classrooms or shuttered doors. With the newly announced Welfare Ministry programs investing 64 billion won ($57 million) toward boosting the country’s birth rate, hopefully Korea can turn the tide of what some have called the peninsula’s “silver tsunami.”
Jenna Gibson is the Director of Communications at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.
Photo from Joe Coyle’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.