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Thursday, June 13, 2024

Student population in Korea hits new low as 18-year decline continues

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Children cross the road on their way to school in Yangcheon District, western Seoul, at the beginning of the academic term on Monday. [YONHAP]
Children cross the road on their way to school in Yangcheon District, western Seoul, at the beginning of the academic term on Monday. [YONHAP]

The total number of K-12 students in Korea has hit its lowest level since modern records began, reflecting the drastic decline of the country’s birthrate in recent decades.

The decrease marks the 18th year in a row since 2005 that Korea’s school-age population has declined.

According to data released by the Education Ministry on Thursday, the total number of students in kindergarten through high school this year was 5.78 million, marking a decline of 96,156 students from the previous year.

This year’s nationwide enrolment figure is almost half that of the 1986 peak of 10.31 million students.

Total enrolment fell past 10 million in 1990 and under 6 million in 2021.

Kindergartens recorded the greatest relative decline with 31,018 fewer children, marking a 5.6 percent decrease in new students, while elementary and middle schools recorded 2.3-percent and 1.6-percent decreases, respectively.

As student numbers have fallen, the average number of students per teacher has risen to 9.4 in kindergartens, 13.3 in elementary schools, 11.6 in middle schools and 9.8 in high schools.

The ongoing fall in new school entrants has resulted in the shuttering of 121 kindergartens this year following 188 closures last year.

Other demographic changes in the country’s school-age population include an increase in children with foreign parentage.

According to the Education Ministry, 12,533 more schoolchildren were recorded as having at least one non-Korean parent, or a 7.4-percent increase.

The ministry began counting the number of students with a non-Korean parent separately for the first time in 2012.

Their numbers have increased annually, reaching 181,178 this year.

The number of university entrants also continued its annual decline in the latest data, reaching a new low of 691,013 students.

A total of 3.04 million students were enrolled in higher education this year, marking a 2.5-percent decrease from 2022.

International students at Korean universities numbered 181,842 this year, up 9 percent from the previous year.

Chinese and Vietnamese students make up the majority, representing 37.4 percent and 23.8 percent of Korea’s total international student population.

The ministry aims to attract 300,000 foreign students to make up the shortfall in tertiary enrolment, which has threatened the survival of universities across the country, but mostly in rural areas.

The declines in student figures are set to continue as records compiled by Statistics Korea show that the country’s birth rate last year plunged past its own previous record low.

According to the agency, only 249,000 babies were born in 2022, down 11,000 from a year earlier.

The latest figure marks the first time that total births fell below 250,000 since the agency started compiling data in 1970.

BY MICHAEL LEE [lee.junhyuk@joongang.co.kr]