Act before it’s too late
The author is a professor of demographics at Seoul National University.
Aspiring teachers took to the streets to protest after Seoul slashed the quota for the recruitment of teachers for public elementary schools by as much as 88 percent in 2017. The fiasco was caused after years of delays in quota adjustments despite thinning classrooms due to the low birthrate. The oversupply still plagues the education field, with many qualified teachers unable to find work. The rapid demographic changes from the low birthrate and aging population have already begun to unsettle society in many corners.
With the birthrate at rock bottom for years, the child birth market is nearly dead in Korea. Actress Lee Young-ae made headlines when she joined a consortium to take over the nearly bankrupt Cheil General Hospital and Women’s Healthcare Center, one of Korea’s oldest and first obstetrics-focused hospital. I was more surprised that an actress had to come forward, not the government, to save one of the few surviving women-focused medical institutions. Its closure has meaning beyond the medical scene.
There can be many reasons behind the hospital’s troubles, including labor disputes and managerial wrongdoings. But the biggest factor is the sharp fall in pregnancies and births. Numerous obstetric clinics closed down or changed their medical services over the last decade. The extinction that began in the provinces and small towns has spread to the capital and even large hospitals.
The preschool community is in disarray also due to negligence to demographic challenges. Preschools have fallen victim to partisan disputes, with three bills related to kindergartens pending in the National Assembly following the findings of misappropriation of state subsidies by preschool institutions.
Preschool education is a public interest as it is partly financed by public funds. At the same time, the institutions are run by individuals and should be respected in terms of management independence as private enterprises.
The problem should be addressed beyond the dispute over whether preschool education institutions count as public or private. A preschool institution usually accepts enrollment from the age of three and is mostly attended by children aged four to six. Those eligible to enter preschool in 2019 were born in 2015, a year with an estimated 430,000 births. A similar number of babies were born in 2013 and 2014. But in 2017, the number shrank to 350,000 and about 310,000 last year. Fewer are expected to be born this year.
Classrooms will be empty beginning in 2021. Regardless of the laws at the National Assembly, most preschool institutions will run into financial troubles due to a critical lack of children. The first to go under will be outside the big cities. Child care will become increasingly difficult there. This is not the time for rivaling parties to wrangle about the three controversial pieces of legislation. They must discuss the viability of preschool institutions in three years time and beyond. Again, the government’s role is important. It needs to consider the idea of nationalizing preschools. Otherwise, the government will only further discourage people from having children.
Another factor demanding immediate attention is reinforcement in the pipeline for nurses and caregivers. Nurses are groomed from nursing schools at universities. More nursing professionals are needed to meet the fast aging society. The need for caregivers also requires more people. Most four-year universities are running nursing departments across the country and are in high demand due to the growing need.
But most nursing schools are currently available in regional universities. Although nursing schools remain popular, regional universities in general have difficulty drawing new students. Out of over 200 nursing departments, only 15 are in Seoul.
Most privately-run universities in local areas are expected to run into financial difficulties in two years’ time. As a result, our nursing training and supply system could be ruined. The Ministry of Health and Welfare must not stay on the sidelines by regarding it as the jurisdiction of higher education. The government must bolster our system to nurture nurses in some form within this year.
The bottleneck of elementary school teachers could have been avoided if both Seoul and the central government had prepared in advance.
The crisis in the child birth market, preschool education and nursing staff shortages could happen in the near future. It is up to the government to prevent chaos.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
JoongAng Ilbo, Jan. 3, Page 31