As of August, more than 8,000 elementary and secondary school teachers were waiting for their early retirement applications to be approved by education authorities across the country. The figure represents a five-fold increase from a year earlier.
A growing number of teachers have applied for early retirement in recent years. But a more fundamental reason for the buildup of applicants is that a decreasing portion have been allowed to leave school with severance pay. The education office in Seoul, for example, accepted only 181 of the 2,386 applications submitted this month.
Funds for paying early retirement allowances have been reduced as rising costs for expanded welfare programs put a tight restriction on the education budget.
Under the current system, a teacher can apply to leave school ahead of the retirement age set at 62, if he or she has worked for more than 20 years. Most of the applicants say they have decided to leave earlier to open the way for younger people aspiring to teach. The competition rates of the exam for becoming teachers have hovered well above 10 to 1 in recent years.
It is necessary to enliven school atmospheres and enhance the quality of lessons by allowing older teachers to leave work if they want to and fill their posts with young teachers armed with a sense of duty, passion and up-to-date knowledge of their subjects. Deploying new devoted teachers could be an effective way to improve some depressed public schools in low-income districts.
The average salary received by applicants for early retirement is more than enough to employ two new teachers. This would help lower the number of students per teacher in the country, which has continued to decrease over the past decades but still remains higher than figures for other major advanced nations.
Considering these effects, more active efforts should be made to fill the gap between the high number of early retirement applicants and aspirants for teaching jobs.
The Education Ministry and regional education offices have blamed each other for the shortage of funds needed to accept early retirement applications. But they should work together to find solutions, including the readjustment of spending priorities. Most parents would be ready to support measures that are in the better interest of their children’s future at the cost of reducing some impractical benefits.
In this context, it would be inappropriate for Education Minister Hwang Woo-yea to push for more cuts in college tuition fees as he suggested during a radio interview early this month. The cost of university education in Korea certainly remains high compared to other countries, but priority need not be put on raising more money in addition to the 4 trillion won ($3.9 billion) the government plans to set aside by 2015 in state scholarships for college students. The minister should strive for a more balanced use of the limited education budget.