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Gov’t admits to botching student forecast

Education Ministry says it will adjust figures accordingly
July 06,2018
The Ministry of Education admitted on Thursday to overestimating the future student population when it was evaluating allocation of resources and hiring at schools.

The ministry said it would lower its prediction to reflect a drop in fertility rate after a presidential committee revealed on Thursday that Koreans were having fewer children than expected.

In May, the minister predicted there would be 4.49 million students in elementary, middle and high schools across the country in 2030, a drop from 5.59 million today.

Cho Young-tae, professor of population statistics at Seoul National University’s Graduate School of Public Health, immediately took issue with the figures.

By his calculations, there will be 4.1 million students, 390,000 fewer than the ministry’s prediction. He based his estimate on population statistics and enrollment figures and factored in a falling birthrate.

The ministry admitted its error after new population statistics came out on Thursday. The Presidential Committee on Aging Society and Population Policy predicts that the fertility rate, or the number of babies a woman is projected to have in her lifetime, will fall below one this year, down from 1.05 last year and 1.17 the year before, according to Statistic Korea.

Last year’s figure was already the lowest in Korea since 1970, when the statistics agency started compiling the data. It was also the lowest in the world.

Based on this grim assessment, the committee projects that the number of babies born this year will be around 320,000, about 10 percent lower than last year. The committee added that the number of newborns in 2022 will likely be around 200,000.

“With the expected drop in the fertility rate,” said Chang Mi-ran, head of the ministry’s School Innovation Policy Bureau, “the number of students starting elementary school in 2024 -- those born 2017 -- is expected to be lower than initially predicted.”

Chang said the change would be “duly reflected” in the ministry’s next announcement of its five-year plan in 2023, for the period between 2023 and 2028.

The plan announced in May applied for 2018 to 2023, though it included the ministry’s predictions on the number of elementary to high school students and teacher demand beyond 2023.

The ministry said the number of teachers needed at schools would likely drop, but it would try to ensure at least one teacher per 15 students in elementary schools and one teacher per 11 students in middle and high schools.

Cho, the professor who objected to the ministry’s statistics, estimated that this would put the number of teachers in 2030 at around 340,000 to 350,000, a drop from the current 380,000.

“Because the Education Ministry overestimated the number of students, the number of teachers needed for the future is also exaggerated,” Cho told the JoongAng Ilbo in May. “It seems like the ministry purposely put out the number to avoid shrinking the number of teachers.”

If the ministry cuts back on teachers to prepare for a decline in students, it would face backlash from the Korean Federation of Teachers’ Association, the Korean Educational Development Institute and individuals aspiring to be teachers, Cho said. “It seems like the ministry wants to avoid pressure from these groups.”

Between 2013 and 2015, Korea’s fertility rate rose from 1.19 to 1.24 but began dropping in 2016.

Chang said the Education Ministry used the 2015 numbers to predict the number of students in 2030.

BY YUN SEOK-MAN [chung.juhee@joongang.co.kr]