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Controversy hits education market opening

By Choe Yong-shik, The Korean Herald, 8 October 2003

The Education Ministry faces mounting protests in the wake of its recent decision to remove restrictions on foreign competition, while leaving other controversial issues in the sector unresolved.

In the first half of this year, the government’s student database plan generated a storm of reactionary sentiment, pitting the administration against the progressive nationwide teachers’ union.

This was compounded by more strife in the teachers’ community after an elementary school principal apparently committed suicide over the unfair accusations of a group of pro-union teacher-activists.

Teachers with various ideological beliefs are currently united in their opposition to the liberalization plan, which they claim will deal a serious blow to the nation’s education sector at a time when it not capable of absorbing the shock.

The Korean Teachers and Educational Workers’ Union, together with several civic groups, held a rally in front of the government complex in downtown Seoul yesterday, hoping to publicize what they view as the inevitable side effects of the liberalization plan.

The latest decision is a throwback from the government’s initial promise, KTEU spokesman Song Won-jae said, referring to the Korean government’s official position of opening only the adult education sector to foreign competition with regard to the ongoing WTO negotiations held earlier this year.

Korea pledged to not open its elementary and secondary sectors to foreign competition, but the government’s latest decision is tantamount to lifting the ban completely, he said.

Last week, the ministry drafted a new policy guideline to remove a set of tricky regulations to help foreign schools of all levels and even foreign governments to operate educational institutions in free economic zones here. These foreign schools will be allowed to freely transfer the proceeds to their homelands.

According to the bill, which will be submitted to the National Assembly shortly, Korean students will be admitted to these foreign schools without any qualification restrictions.

Setting aside their differences with its rival KTEU, the pro-government Korean Federation of Teachers’ Associations went as far as expressing its intention of forming an alliance with the labor union.

Allowing foreign schools to enter free economic zones will result in a new social craze in which local students may desert their schools to seek a foreign education, Hwang Suk-keun, the association’s spokesperson, said.

The local education industry will further falter due to foreign competition, Hwang contends.

Another contentious issue is the government initiative to hire college graduates lacking teaching diplomas on a contract basis to fill growing vacancies at schools in rural areas. The plan is included in an initiative by the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry to upgrade living standards in marginalized rural areas.