[The Korea Herald] Is Seoul’s student rights ordinance good policy?

The subject of education exercises Korean society like few other topics. A student rights ordinance passed by the Seoul education office became a major clash point between conservatives and liberals in early 2012. — John.

By John Power

In an election year, little can be considered above ideological conflict. Education is no exception.

An ordinance on student rights, passed by Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education late last month, is the latest source of controversy within an education system recently rocked by extreme bullying and student suicides.

Liberal superintendent Kwak No-hyun, returning to work after being fined for bribery during his 2010 election campaign, proclaimed the passage of the Ordinance for Students’ Human Rights as a “historic event.” The Ministry of Education Science and Technology, teachers’ groups and many conservatives see it differently. Arguing that the ordinance will lead to confusion within schools and strip teachers of authority, the Education Ministry has taken the case to the Supreme Court to have it overturned.

“I can say that we sympathize with the spirit of the ordinance, that we understand student rights already exist in the Constitution and law. (But) the Ministry of Education is afraid the ordinance might hinder or restrict school autonomy in Seoul. Because it stresses only students’ rights, not students’ responsibilities. We think they should put a more balanced rights and responsibilities (approach in place),” an Education Ministry official who did not wish to be named told Voice.

The ordinance, which bans corporal punishment and discrimination against homosexual and pregnant students, and allows students to protest on school grounds and choose their own hairstyle and dress, follows similarly controversial decrees in Gyeonggi Province and Gwangju Metropolitan City, also in the name of students’ human rights.

Jung Un-soo, International coordinator of the Korean Federation of Teachers’ Association, campaigned for an ordinance on student rights in the early 1990s. But he said the ordinance passed by SMOE has little to do with the cause he fought for.

“ … This policy is clearly something driven by a political agenda regarding the organizational gains involved in the election of provincial superintendents, and with no regards to the actual human rights of students,” Jung said.

Jung said the KFTA is firmly against the “deceptive” ordinance on judicial and pragmatic grounds as well as out of concern for students.

Civic activists protest the student rights ordinance in Seoul. (Yonhap News)

“If someone in the school discriminates against students or violates their human rights, they can be punished by law. So to insist that this ordinance is necessary to protect human rights of students is a total lie. Moreover, we are giving each school the right to enact and amend its regulations according to the ‘Enforcement Decree of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act’ so schools can restrict the freedom of some students in cases to protect the human rights of other students. But this ordinance is limiting the rights of individual schools ― and its students ― to decide their rights and responsibilities on their own.”

Jung further objects to the way the measure was passed. He has particularly harsh words for the Seoul head of education, convicted of bribing an electoral rival to drop out of the race for the post.

“Superintendent Kwak has been convicted for bribery with the highest fine allowed in the law. This sentence makes the election invalid. The reason Kwak is not out of his post is that there was an appeal to the higher court. But someone who was already convicted for bribery in the first trial, and who was clearly involved in the corruption of an election, can’t be a chief of education. What shall children learn from him? They will learn that you can be a superintendent through bribery if you have 200 million won. That’s what the students are saying nowadays in schools.

“What Kwak has to do now is not to enforce his election pledges, or political deals in other words. What he has to do is to step down from his post, and say sorry for the corruption of the election and the harm he has caused in the schools. That is what an educator should do. He is now just revealing that he is no kind of educator but just a political fraud.”

But Chang Suh-yeon, of Gong-Gam Korean Public Interest Lawyers’ Group, said that Kwak’s conviction is a separate issue from the ordinance.

“The bribery is not directly related to the ordinance. It was the opinion of 97,000 Seoul citizens (who signed a petition) who wanted the ordinance enacted, so it was through a legal procedure that it was possible,” Chang said.
Chang said that student rights have been ignored for too long in schools across the nation, resulting in an abnormally high suicide rate among students. The issue of school violence and its possible effects became a topic of national conversation after details of a Daegu student’s suicide note became public in December.

“I can’t understand how people could be against something as self-evident as ‘all students have the right to be free from violence,’” Chang said. “In 1991, Korea joined the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child, and according to article 6 of the Constitution, the U.N. convention should have the same weight as national law. The U.N. committee on children has demanded that all corporal punishment be banned by law and they advised the Korean government this on several occasions. In this and day age it doesn’t make any sense that a teacher should use corporal punishment as discipline.”

For Chang, it is also important to allow students express their individuality.

“All human beings have the right to express themselves but due to the militarized culture resulting from Japanese colonialism, students have been forced to abide by a strict dress and hairstyle code. Is school the army? (In any case) with the current ordinance, uniform, unlike hair, can be regulated by individual schools,” she said.

But others such as Jung fear that class discipline will break down without rules and adequate methods of punishment.

“The provisions regarding school dress is one of the typical provisions showing the problem of this ordinance. On the surface it is to protect the freedom of students. But the actual result of banning all school uniforms is causing discrimination based on economic status. These days there are even ‘classes’ in classrooms divided by the price of the overcoats of students. So this is violating their right of equality. And it is contradictory to the provisions regarding discrimination,” said Jung.

“The more serious problem is that the ordinance is saying ‘Students are free from all violence,’ and this sounds good. But the reality is that students are more suffering from violence because the ordinance is tying the hands of teachers who want to help students in school violence situations by forbidding all kind of physical intervention and immediate discipline ― even non-physical guidance also.”

The battle for the future of the capital’s education shows few signs of abating. But for now the fate of the ordinance lies with the Supreme Court, which could make a ruling before the end of the month.

“I don’t think the case will be successful because the ordinance does not go against any law,” said Chang. “The ordinance was proposed by the Seoul citizens and passed by the Seoul government, and the Education Ministry going against it is damaging to the local government.”


[The Korea Herald] Are Koreans overeducated?

By John Power

Koreans are arguably second to none in their zeal for education.

Some 82 percent of Korean high school graduates go on to third level education, more than in any other OECD country. There are more than 400 colleges and universities and 70,000 second-level private academies called “hagwon” around the country, while Korean high school students consistently outperform their international peers in reading and math. But with youth unemployment a prominent policy issue and students facing sometimes unbearable pressure to perform, many are questioning the nation’s feverish devotion to academic study.

“It is undesirable for there to be so many university graduates,” Ryu Ji-seong of the Samsung Economic Research Institute told Voice. “Currently, only 60 percent of university graduates are employed. There are also few prospects for drastic increases in jobs for university graduates.”

While far lower than in most advanced countries, Korea’s youth unemployment rate, at 6.7 percent, is more than double that of the general population. To tackle this and encourage manual trade-minded students away from university, the government opened 21 Meister schools in 2010, focusing on technical skills in areas such as shipbuilding and semiconductors. Based on the German model of vocational high schools, the government sees the schools as an antidote to a national obsession with admission to the top three “SKY” universities: Korea University, Seoul National University and Yonsei University.

“I think Meister schools are a good idea,” said Ryu. “Businesses need specialized technical skills, and Meister schools can give businesses access to skilled high school graduates.”

But he also believes employers have a big role to play.

“Businesses should be proactive in recruiting high school graduates, and provide graduates with opportunities for career growth and development in line with their abilities and achievements. Secondary schools need to provide students with career guidance and education in line with their aptitude and abilities. Both should play their role to realize a society that values actual talent rather than just degrees.”

But not all sources believe such a high university attendance rate is a negative. Completing tertiary education significantly increases your chances of obtaining a job: In 2009, the average employment rate of third-level graduates in the OECD was 83.6 percent, but just 74.2 percent for those who had not gone beyond high school.

While noting that it was difficult “to say whether this is a plus or negative for graduates since there are many variables,” Chung Ji-eun of the OECD’s education directorate says the signs are that tertiary education has had a positive impact on Korea’s employment rate.

“In 2009, our most recent data, 76.1 percent of tertiary graduates were employed, 69.6 percent were with upper secondary degree and 65.3 percent were with below upper secondary degree,” Chung said.

She added that economic climate is more likely to negatively affect the labor market than any particular university attendance rate, but that education could cushion the blow of economic shocks.

“I think the labor market is rather more dependent on its economic climate. For example, as you might well be aware, Korea experienced financial crisis from 1997. This effect was evidently shown in our data as well, since the employment rate dropped virtually in every education attainment level but this drop was less evident for those with a tertiary education degree.”

But the nation’s educational zeal has faced criticism away from the world of work. According to a report last year, Korean eight graders had the second-poorest social skills of children in 36 countries. The report, released by the Korean Educational Development Institute and the National Youth Policy Institute, laid the blame with a highly regimented education system and excessive hours of study.

“(Students) do not have much time to experience social interaction with their friends and their family and their relatives,” said Hur Tea-kyu, a psychology professor at Korea University.

“That makes people less educated and prepared for social situations and contexts. They only spend most time with very few numbers of close friends and mother and parents, and usually they don’t have sisters or brothers because many families have only one child.”

Hur says social skills are not something that can be taught but that in times past, university had for many been a chance to socialize and form relationships as never before. But those days are gone.

“Getting a job is becoming more difficult and more difficult every year so many university college students are worried about their future as soon as they get in. Ten years, 20 years ago, they had to study hard to get into university. However, after entering university they had a few years to enjoy their life a little bit. Not many students can enjoy their life (now). University is not providing the opportunity to get educated about something they need during their early education.”

For Hur, one of the biggest problems with the education system is its focus on short-term goals.

“They are going live 70 or 80 …And they are thinking about three years after, getting a job and entering university. It is just a small part of their life, it’s not a big part. Actually the big part is not determined yet. We are teaching our children to have only a short-term perspective.”

Others, such as Park Jae-hyun, a research fellow at the Korean Council for University Education, reject any suggestion that Koreans are over-educated, pointing to the role played by education in Korea’s economic and political success.

“It would not be a rational opinion that Koreans are overeducated, because education has a special value and meaning in Korean society. As many people know, education has been a fundamental power for Korea to bring economic as well as political development,” he said.

Park says that this strong focus on education will continue to be vital to the country’s success into the future.

“Human resources have substituted natural resources in Korea with respect to economic growth by providing skill and knowledge which support each industrial area. This trend will be continued in the future as global competition is intense.

“For example, Samsung’s world-class technology such as mobile phones and semiconductors is based on education in the engineering field. Even though a higher university attendance rate is not the only way to ensure the quality of education in Korea, the level of knowledge and culture of Korean people can be enhanced with universal higher education and easy access to colleges.”

Professor of English at Seoul University Lee Byung-min argues that Korea’s educational tradition has acted to breakdown class barriers.

“Of course, education is a strength for youngsters. Why? It is our tradition. Every aspect of our life is closely related to education. Only educated people who have higher degrees or good education or good school graduates with high grades have been always valued in society irrespective of their social ranking,” Park said.

And he emphasizes that the benefits of a college education go far beyond employability.

“Students have opportunities to expand their knowledge and views on issues in their society and the world. They can also learn some skills like cooperation and co-work with others not only in the classroom but also outside of the classroom like other club activities. What I am really emphasizing during college education is that students need to think of some issues in a more critical way by looking at various aspects of that particular phenomenon.”

[The Korea Herald] KAIST memo asked professors to raise grades

This exclusive was originally written in the midst of controversy in 2011 about the supposedly excessive levels of competition at Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology. — John 

A professor at Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology has rubbished claims that competition at the college is out of control, revealing that the then-dean of academic affairs sent a memo to lecturers last year asking them to bump up the average GPA of freshman.

The memo, which was seen by The Korea Herald, was sent by Lee Kwang-hyung last May to professors of freshmen courses, asking them to raise the average GPA for mandatory subjects.

Lee asked professors to raise the previous year’s GPA average for courses including calculus, general biology and introduction to programming from 2.53, 2.95 and 2.96, respectively, to between 3.2 and 3.3 for the 2010 spring semester.

The higher GPAs would have meant students avoiding tuition fees under controversial reforms introduced by KAIST president Suh Nam-pyo in 2007. Under the recently abolished system, students with a GPA under 3.0 had to pay part of their fees.

Lee expressed concern in the memo that the average GPA for mandatory courses in the 2009 spring semester had been low compared to the overall student body and that “lots of freshman who are in a difficult and unaccustomed situation feel devastated if they get terrible records and doubt about their choice of the (sic) career.”

Lee also said in the memo that students were advising their friends in high school to avoid KAIST because they would find it difficult to cope, and that raising the GPA average would “ease students’ burden.”

It is not yet clear to what extent the memo was adhered to. The professor who provided the memo to The Korea Herald said he hadn’t followed it precisely but had been more generous in his grading. Another KAIST professor confirmed he had followed the memo and indicated other professors had as well.

Lee declined to comment on the memo or the situation at KAIST.

The professor who released the memo on condition of anonymity has taught at KAIST for a number of years.

“If the dean of academic affairs is sending such a memo, is the university administration focused on competitiveness at all costs? I don’t think so,” the lecturer said.

He claimed that reports of the college promoting extreme competition were wildly exaggerated and that a significant minority of students he teaches act poorly in class.

“I’ve walked past classrooms and looked in the back and seen students watching videos on their laptops, checking Facebook, and so on. KAIST students do work hard, do deal with competition, are under stress — but I don’t think it’s at the hyperbolic level being portrayed in the media,” he said.

He also said attendance and punctuality were lax among many of his students.

“In classes without mandatory attendance, towards the end of the semester, I’ll get maybe 15-30 percent of the class showing up on time, and maybe 50 percent coming at all,” he said.

The professor added that in his view much of the criticism leveled at President Suh in the wake of five suicides at the college was unfair.

“It’s an elementary logical fallacy to assume that, because the suicides have occurred in a short period of time, that they must have the same cause, and a further fallacy to blame the policy that is most unpopular with students.”

He pointed out there had been little analysis of the suicide rates at other colleges or of young people generally, and that KAIST wasn’t necessarily an anomaly. An article in the Wall Street Journal recently calculated that about 2.5 suicides at KAIST a year would be in keeping with the national average, based on the number of students being 8,000.

Students, faculty staff and civic groups have repeatedly called for Suh’s resignation in recent days, blaming his reforms for creating unprecedented competition at the college.

Business majors at KAIST attend a meeting amid controversy over competition at the college in Daejeon on Tuesday. (The Korea Herald)

The college last week scrapped the tuition system for the first eight semesters and on Wednesday set up an emergency committee to alter Suh’s policies.

Suh has so far rejected demands to step down.committee to alter Suh’s policies.

Suh has so far rejected demands to step down.