The Rise and Fall of the GEPIK program

I’ve been teaching abroad in public schools in Asia since I was 22. I first lived in Japan, and worked in an elementary school through a company called Interac. When I worked in Japan, even I could recognize that the environment that I worked in was probably getting to the low point in a long evolution of having Native English Teachers (NETs) in the public school system. After dealing with budget cut after budget cut, I finally returned home because even my pay as an NET couldn’t pay the basic rent and bills in Japan.

A year later, I moved to South Korea, and after a few months of roughing it in a hagwon, I switched over to the Gyeonggi English Program In Korea (GEPIK) system. I taught a year in an elementary school, and then moved to a middle school after more budget cuts.

You may notice that I’m saying the word budget cuts a lot.

There is a constant problem in the public school system when it comes to learning English. Both Japan and Korea want to have their students learn English, obviously. However, to get a NET is expensive, and many programs are not prepared to pay for a NET long term. When I started working for GEPIK in 2011, I came into the company under the looming threat of major budget cuts in 2012. The entire program was feared to be removed in the coming months, and hundreds of teachers were worried about what would be happening in the future. It turns out that while there were budget cuts, it wasn’t as broad and sweeping as feared. However, at the end of December 2012, a week before Christmas, almost all of the middle school and high school GEPIK teachers in urban areas received the following letter:

Dear GEPIK Teachers,

Every year, around this time, rumours and speculations arise about the future of the GEPIK program. The deliberation on the budget for 2013 is still going on by the Provincial Assembly however we have decided to let you know about the GEPIK budget plan for next year.

Due to budget cut, it has been decided that NETs in middle and high schools on the GEPIK budget will not be able to renew their contract in 2013. This does not apply to schools that are funded by the District City Council, or by the school’s private budget. Please note that while these changes apply to contracts in 2013, those currently under contract with their schools cannot be terminated due to this budget cut and schools must respect their contract.

We are sorry to give you the bad news but all of our coordinators wish you all the best of luck for your future endeavours.

GEPIK Coordinators Team

That’s right. The entire middle school and high school program in GEPIK was cut, unless you’re funded by the city or private budget. People who teach in rural areas were safe, however they no longer will be given their “rural bonus”, which was an extra 100,000원 a month.  As a middle school teacher in Bucheon, of course this affected me directly, as well as many of my friends. We are all scrambling for work, with over 250 teachers across the province trying for the elementary positions spared this budget. However, it’s clear to many of us teachers that GEPIK is a sinking ship.

Looking at the GEPIK program and it’s drastic cuts, I can’t help but be reminded of the Japanese equivalent, the Japan Exchange and Teaching Program, better known as the JET programme. Once upon a time, the JET program hired over 6000 teachers to work across Japan, with placements both rural and urban. There was a steady rise in employees  through the 90’s, until 2002 when there were 6273 NETs across Japan. After 2002 though, there was then a steady decline, with over 300 jobs a year disappearing because of budget cuts. the JET program was expensive, just like the GEPIK program is, because it also helps teachers with their housing. As of 2010, the JET program had only 4300 jobs. The JET schools can now be found in rural towns across Japan, but are far from major cities like Tokyo.

But of course, the want for English teachers didn’t go down. People just wanted to pay as little as possible. This is where the dispatch companies come in. I’ve already covered the difference between a recruiter system and the dispatch system on my post “Recruiters vs. Dispatch Companies”, but to summarize, a dispatch company is a private company who sign a contract with school boards to provide teachers. Often, there are multiple companies bidding for the boards of education, and they’ll go with the lowest cost. Obviously, this means that the NETs are the ones suffering, having to take jobs that pay much less than if they were to be directly hired by the school board (Like JET or GEPIK).

With the GEPIK program making such massive cuts (and the Seoul and national programs doing the same), it’s clear that the era of government hired NETs is ending. Korean families will still want their schools to have NETs, but without the government funding, Korea will probably be transitioning over to the dispatch company method.

Which is a shame really.

Until then, I’m scrambling for my own new job, hoping to get in one more year in the GEPIK program before going elsewhere.