CLASSROOMS REMAIN empty. Buildings have been shut down or have had their access restricted, and thermal cameras guard the entrances of whichever facilities are still in use. COVID-19 has fundamentally reshaped university life; the spring semester at Yonsei can best be described as a semester of absence: the absence of normal daily routines, of campus events or regular club activities, and most of all, the absence of the students. Zoom has kept universities functioning, but each online session only serves to emphasize what is missing from this new reality. However, absence does not imply a lack of activity. For the student councils of Yonsei, it has created a whole new set of responsibilities as they work to address student concerns related to the ongoing pandemic. The Yonsei Annals reached out to the 55th General Student Council, Mate, as well as its counterpart, the 58th General Graduate Student Council Neo-ul in the hopes of learning more about the present circumstances.
Facilitating communication: petitions and surveys
Communication with the student community is one of the core functions of the General Student Council. To adequately represent the interests of all 19,000 undergraduate students, it is vital to have a source of fluid communication between itself and the student body. For this purpose, the previous General Student Council, FLOW sought to improve the dissemination of information to students and created the undergraduate General Student Council website from which students could easily access information about the activities of the council. This improvement has become invaluable during the current state of affairs due to the impossibility of offline communication. In their mission to “respond readily and become sensitive to” student concerns, Mate has made use of the site’s “Petition Bulletin Board” along with their own Facebook homepage to receive student feedback. For their part, students have been actively engaging with Mate; at the time of writing, 18 petitions have been posted through these channels.
Meanwhile, the General Graduate Student Council has primarily used surveys conducted via links distributed on various group chat rooms in KakaoTalk and Facebook. Four surveys were conducted overall. Student participation rates have been encouraging with the surveys with as many as one-third of the entire graduate school population responding. Each time, the results of the surveys were posted on the graduate council’s Facebook homepage to increase transparency and elicit further student feedback. While direct communication with the student body remains a challenge, both student councils have continued to work diligently to ensure that there is a space for students to address their concerns.
Controversy over tuition and dormitory fees
The biggest controversy this semester for both the undergraduate and graduate students at Yonsei has revolved around the issue of tuition fees. As early as March, the general graduate student council began distributing surveys for graduate students regarding partial reimbursement of their tuition. 92% of the students who responded to the survey were in favor of partial reimbursement. The reasons, as outlined in a statement posted on their Facebook homepage on May 24, were that the semester had been reduced by one week, that there were to be no labs or practice classes, that the students were unable to use or were restricted in their usage of school facilities, and that the quality of online classes was “markedly poor” compared to offline classes. Similar opinions circulated among undergraduate students. Mate as well as Neo-ul responded by raising the issue to the school during a series of meetings held in April.
Though both student councils tried to raise the issue to the school, they ultimately were unsuccessful. Perhaps this is not entirely surprising. Many schools, have struggled with finances over the years, going in the red due to their inability to increase tuition fees ever since 2009. In 2019, several university president candidates, including the current 19th President of Yonsei, Suh Seoung Hwan, ran on a platform of tightening up the balance sheet. However, both councils found the school’s response, which cited an “increase in spending and decreased income” due to COVID-19 as lacking and demanded that the school open their ledger in a transparent manner for closer examination by the students so that they would be able to better understand the school’s position. In a statement released on April 6, Mate expressed a modest proposition that they simply wanted the school to reveal additional details about its finances so that the controversy surrounding tuition fees could be resolved through a collective decision-making process. To this end, three separate meetings were conducted in April but no further progress on the issue has been reported.
I has expressed an increasing level of frustration with the administration. On April 5, they requested that the Tuition Fee Deliberation Committee be reconvened but were stonewalled by the administration’s response that it would be difficult to re-schedule. In a statement posted on the graduate student council’s Facebook homepage on May 25, the graduate students echoed the undergraduate general student council’s claim that the income statement posted on the Yonsei webpage was insufficient, and that the school had not provided conclusive evidence to support its claim of considerable losses due to COVID-19. Furthermore, they noted that the Yonsei budget planning committee described its considerable emergency savings for “use during unavoidable [and unexpected] situations,” which seemed to exactly describe the current situation. In its official statement, the Graduate Student Council declared administration’s excuse for the current level of tuition “ridiculous” and demanded that more “reasonable evidence” be presented to the student body.
The resentment over tuition fees is more pronounced amongst the graduate students who usually pay 20 to 30% more the undergraduate tuition fee per semester. They also face greater challenges from conducting classes online as graduate programs typically require more direct interactions with professors whether it be for labs or practice sessions at school facilities. Further complicating the issue, graduate students described how Teaching Assistants or Research Assistants were given much more work than usual with little help or resources being provided by the school. They noted that they were not compensated in any way for the additional work.
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In addition to their ongoing efforts to increase transparency and to demand partial reimbursement of tuition fees, both student councils have been involved in successful efforts elsewhere. Through various negotiations and meetings with the school administration, the undergraduate student council has secured agreements with the school for full refund of the Songdo dormitory fee and adjustment of the exchange student program for the Fall Semester of 2020. The end of the semester is near, but the trouble is far from over; there is no reassurance that the pandemic will not continue for the remainder of the year. Thankfully, the efforts and achievements of the general student councils in this semester will serve as a bedrock for improvements in the near future even if the current situation persists.