Drastic Decrease in Number of University Students in Korea by 2023: What about our Jobs?

cutbacks in Korea universities

That’s Huge

The other day I was flipping through the latest issue of Busan Haps and I ran across the “number in the news” which stated that from 2013—>2023, the number of university students in Korea will decrease by 160,000. Wow, I thought to myself, that’s a staggering number in a relatively short period of time. A bit more digging found quite a few articles, but check out this one from the Joongang Daily which mentions this statistic.

How Will English Teachers Fare?

It got me wondering…exactly how many foreign English teachers will be cut? And what is the future of the ESL industry in Korea? I think we can all agree that is has indeed reached its peak, perhaps sometime around 2010 but that it’s been in steady decline since then. There are very few public school positions at the middle and high school levels and elementary positions are starting to get cut as well. I don’t see how this trend can reverse simply because of Korean demographics which show that Korea has had one of the lowest birthrates in the world for years. I imagine even elementary schools will begin closing their doors in the next decade.

Any Up to Date Information?

Check out this interesting post from Gusts of Popular Feeling on the number of E2 visa holders by year. Does anyone have a link to more up to date information? Please get in touch.

How Many Fewer English Teachers in Korean Universities by 2023?

But, universities. I want to try to estimate the number of positions that will be cut by 2023. I’m making some serious assumptions here so please comment below and tell me if you think I’m way off.

A. Students in Korea generally take mandatory English classes in their freshman year. They make up approximately 1/5 of the student population (1/4 undergrad + another portion is graduate students).

B. There are also plenty of foreign teachers who teach things like business English, English majors, academic writing, presentations and public speaking, etc. I will bump up the number of students who have a foreign teacher in any given semester to 1/4. I think this could actually be on the low-end, but I’ll leave it there.

C. Foreign teachers in Korea generally have around 120 students. It can be as low as 50 or as high as 400, but from my experience 120 seems like a solid assumption.

D. Let’s do the math. 160,000 x 1/4 = 40,000 fewer students that a foreign teacher would potentially teach in 2023.

E. 40,000/120 = 333 fewer foreign English teachers by 2023.

333 Fewer positions in 2023

333 fewer positions for foreign English teachers by 2023. That doesn’t seem like that much, but the actual number of foreigners teaching English in Korean universities isn’t that high. For example, I work at one of the biggest universities in Busan and we only have around 20 people. It wouldn’t be such a stretch to say that in Korea’s second biggest city, Busan, there would be less than 500 people teaching English in universities. I actually think it might be closer to that 333 than it is to 500.

A short note. Take all these numbers for what they’re worth: the perhaps widely inaccurate musings of a person who blogs about teaching in Korean universities.

There will Always be Some Jobs for the Well-Qualified

When cuts start to happen in full force, there will be more and more well-qualified people trying to get the few positions that remain. By well-qualified, I mean a Master’s degree in TESOL/Linguistics/English/Education and at least 2 years of experience teaching in universities. Perhaps the day will even come when employers will start to require something like the CELTA and DELTA.

Those who do  have positions will likely be reluctant to leave them so turnover will be extremely low. If the large majority of the staff are staying on and perhaps only one person leaves, it’s easy enough for universities to just spread those hours around among those remaining instead of going through the hassle of hiring when it’s not really necessary.

I don’t really see how job conditions (pay, teaching hours, vacation time) are going to get better when it will become such an employer’s market. Starting wages for English teachers in Korea have remained stagnant for the past decade and I predict that it will be much the same for the next one.

Korea for the Long-Term = Not Going to be a Winner

If you’re serious about staying in Korea for the long-term, it might be tough. While I do think those with serious qualifications will always have jobs, those without? The writing is on the wall and it’s either time to get those serious qualifications to ensure yourself a future here in Korea, or it’s time to make some alternative plans that don’t involve teaching in Korean universities.

The other plan that might work out for you will be to get a university job ASAP, within the next year when there are still jobs to be had. Then, just hang on, hope for the best and attempt to win the war of attrition by doing things like having amazing student evaluations.

What’s a Better Option than Teaching in Korea?

Where exactly that better place is, I don’t have any solid answers for you. I myself am getting out of teaching English because I don’t really like the future I see for myself in it.

For some advice on making the transition back home after you’ve been teaching abroad, check out: Life After ESL: Foreign Teachers Returning Home. I interviewed 55 people who’d gone back home and tried to glean as much of their wisdom and advice as I possibly could. I mostly wrote it for myself, in order to turn my terror at going back home into something productive, but I think you’ll find it really useful too if you’re in the same position that I am.


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