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Students head to court over tuition fee refund demands

Student anger over the South Korean government’s inaction over demands for university tuition fee refunds – due to many classes being held online during the coronavirus pandemic – has led to a petition to the country’s Constitutional Court to set a legal basis for reducing tuition fees in a time of crisis.

The move by students, announced on 24 April, comes after the Ministry of Education and universities tossed the ball back and forth to each other over who is responsible for refunds for thousands of students.

Most universities postponed the start of the spring semester in early March by up to two weeks and then began the new semester with online courses.

The government has argued that there is no legal basis for it to decree countrywide fee reductions due to a cancellation of face-to-face classes. Education Vice-Minister Park Baeg-beom said earlier in April that tuition fee refunds are “a matter to be decided by university presidents”.

In the petition to the Constitutional Court, petitioner Lee Da-hoon, a student of new materials engineering at Inha University, said current legislation on the rules on university tuition omits provisions for reducing fees “in cases where universities fail to provide educational services to a level corresponding to the amount of tuition paid”.

Server crashes and poor lecture quality

Server crashes, poor lecture quality, an inability to communicate with professors and a lack of laboratory-based classes had meant lower quality education, he said.

“The proper approach would be for ordinary universities to reduce tuition fees to at least a third while they are providing classes exclusively online,” Lee said in an interview with the Hankyoreh newspaper after the court petition was filed.

Current rules on university tuition fees include provision that fees can be waived or reduced “in cases where tuition payment is deemed difficult as a result of natural disasters”, Lee said. They can also be waived for the semester or month when classes are suspended outside the vacation period.

However, education authorities and universities maintain that the coronavirus pandemic does not constitute a ‘natural disaster’ and that universities have continued to provide for students through online classes.

At a meeting with education ministry officials in early April, the university presidents’ group Korean Council for University Education (KCUE), told the education ministry’s Park that universities could not afford refunds and cited financial difficulties due to a freeze in tuition fees over recent years – the tuition fee freeze has been a major plank of the government of President Moon Jae-in.

Universities argue that they continue to pay academic salaries and faced additional costs to set up online classes, even while face-to-face classes were suspended.

In an unusual meeting this week with students representing 26 student councils, under the Association of Student Councils Network, KCUE said financial difficulties due to a decade-long tuition fee freeze, extra spending required to quarantine international students, disinfect facilities and prepare online classes meant they could not afford to refund fees.

The student network had complained earlier that students had called on the government and national assembly, but the ministry of education “shifted their responsibility onto the shoulders of each university”, said Jung Da-hyun, co-chair of the network.

Almost all students want refunds

A survey of almost 22,780 students at over 200 Korean universities conducted by the National University Student Council Network (Univnet) found recently that 99% of respondents wanted a full or partial refund of fees for the spring semester.

Of those demanding a refund, 82% said the reason was because “remote classes are not up to par”, while 72% also cited not being able to use university facilities.

According to Univnet, 55% of students polled in mid-April wanted half of their tuition to be refunded, while just over 28% wanted 20%-30% of their tuition fees reimbursed. Fewer than 10% were demanding a full refund.

At its press conference on 21 April presenting the results, Univnet said many students were facing difficulties finding part-time jobs and meeting costs.

“Tuition fees should be refunded as wished for by 99% of students. Economic measures should also be prepared for students now in a tight spot due to monthly rental costs and difficulties in job hunting,” Univnet said.

‘Right to education’

Student groups argued that their ‘right to education’ had been violated in a petition in early March on the website of the Korean president’s office, demanding adjustments in fees or refunds. It had more than 130,000 signatures last week.

Universities said they would consider special grants to students facing economic hardship on a case by case basis. However, student groups say that this did not constitute a proper sector-wide response or respond to the problem of substandard online courses.

Online classes have been ongoing for around three weeks. Although the government this week announced there had been no new coronavirus cases domestically, it is unclear when universities will reopen campuses and resume all classes following experiences in some other countries of a resurgence of cases once lockdowns are eased.

A survey by the Korean Association of Private University Presidents last week found that just over half of 193 universities around the country had announced plans to resume face-to-face classes by 11 May. Some said they would start earlier and others would start with only some classes face to face.

Korea University in Seoul announced last week it would offer both online and offline lectures from 11 May. Other universities, such as Hangyang University and Dankook University, already resumed face-to-face lectures last week, while Seoul National University said it is preparing to resume some normal classes from 4 May starting with subjects that require practical experience or laboratory experiments.

Some university officials admitted that a hasty return to full classes has been prompted by tuition fee refund demands by students and fears that student dissatisfaction would only grow.

Students say they will continue to demand refunds.


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