‘Please vote during the Student Union election’. ‘The deadline to cast your vote is Friday 5 o’ clock. Please vote’. These types of utterances were often heard during the early part of March inside most university campuses in Korea. At Sookmyung Women’s University, members of the Emergency Planning Committee also shouted out similar expressions for consecutive days in front of Campus I in order to attract voters. However, few students showed any interest in the election and expressed no concern for the results of the election either. Most students merely passed on by, ignoring the voice of the Student Union’s call to vote. The Sookmyung Times interviewed the Emergency Planning Committee members and the student unions of Yonsei University, Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, Sookmyung Women’s University, and Hanyang University to investigate the low voter turnout rate trend among campuses and the problems unions face.
Ms. A of 51th Student Union ‘Solution’
Hankuk University of Foreign Studies
Mr. B of 50th Emergency Planning Committee
Sookmyung Women’s University
Ms. C of 49th Emergency Planning Committee
Mr. D of 45th Student Union
What is the role of the Student Union? And why do you think a Student Union is needed?
Y: At Yonsei University the Student Union manages the activities of students both on and off-campus. To be more specific, it looks at the progress of monthly university projects, gathers student body ideas towards situations on and off-campus, and clarifies students’ position on campus problems. The Student Union is essential because it represents students. Naturally, the Student Union cannot represent every individual stance on an issue, but it does represent a majority of students by clarifying their position and serves as an intermediator between students and the school. Without the Student Union, there would be no organization on campus to represent students’ voice, which would result in the university acting solely on its own behalf and not for its students.
HU: The Student Union at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies governs the activities of students. In other words, the Student Union aids all students by acting as a strategic and democratic entity. It also represents the voice of students, so it constantly invites comments, opinions, ideas, and feedback from the students that are then passed on to the school administration. Moreover, the Student Union protects the rights of students by working to increase their convenience and welfare inside the school. Without the Student Union, university students would face hardships protecting their basic rights, would not be represented socially, and would not receive more advantages and welfare.
SM: The Student Union at Sookmyung Women’s University works for the students at Sookmyung. Inside the school, the Union manages events, produces yearly diaries for students, and hands out light snacks during examination periods to students. Outside the school, the Union actively communicates with other universities to spread the opinions of Sookmyungians to others. At the moment, the Student Union at Sookmyung Women’s University is being managed by the 49th Emergency Planning Committee. The university needs an elected Student Union so that students’ voices are heard and their ideas are shared and changes that benefit students are made. Also, because the Student Union represents students, it is the intermediary between the school and the student body.
HY: The Union represents the voice of students at Hanyang University and works to ensure students’ rights are protected. Also, it works to solve issues among students if school processes events or works without asking opinions of students. For instance, if changes to department curricula or basic regulations cause problems on campus, the Union listens attentively to the students and then conveys their thoughts and grievances to school authorities. Students also have the right to study without being discriminated against or have any other right violated, and the Union sticks up for these rights. Problems that cannot be settled by individuals alone are also handled by the Student Union so that students can cooperate and enjoy a satisfying university life.
What is the current state of the Student Union?
Y: It is often said that the relationship between a university and its student union depends on the school’s president. In 2014, when I spent time working for the Student Union, the president of our school disliked communications with students. Students, at the time, were upset at the cap placed on course retaking. The school capped the retaking of course at a maximum of 3 for students whose ID numbers were 2013 and above. The Union worked hard to resolve the issue by trying to set up meetings with the president, but the president refused to talk about the issue. Thus, until the time our medate nearly ended, Union members were unable to obtain any definite answers from the school. However, I’ve heard that the new current president is very open to the voices of students and has agreed to sit down with Union heads to discuss campus issue. This is the first time ever a Yonsei University president has visited the Student Union office. This one simple act has brought the Student Union and the school closer than ever before.
HU: The current state of the Student Union is not that good. The Student Union often bangs heads with the school. Unilateral merge of the main and sub-campus in 2011, new regulations regarding grading in 2014, and the granting of Park-Cheol, former school president under investigation for embezzlement of school funds, an honorary professorship in 2016 are reasons for the unstable relationship between the Union and the university. Last summer, the Union organized a sit-in at the president’s office to express students’ disapproval of the granting of Park Cheol an honorary professorship. School authorities fought back hard and announced disciplinary action for the sit-in and the picketing during the retirement ceremony for Park Cheol.
SM: The Student Union’s situation can be summed up as poor since there is no official Student Union currently operating at Sookmyung Women’s University. Many students hope a union will be reestablished from this year, but the 49th by-election notice, uploaded during winter break in February failed to attract the attention of students. A number of students didn’t even know that a by-election was being held. In the end, though the candidates put much effort into filling the reference list, they failed to gain enough signatures needed to call an election.
HY: The Student Union at Hanyang University is operating well. During elections, over 50% of the student body voted, which is likely why a survey indicated that students trust in the Union is high. Still, there is a large portion of the student body that opted not to vote in the election or weren’t motivated enough in the Student Union to vote. The Student Union will make further steps this year to actively listen to the voices of students so that trust is ensured between students and the Union government members.
National and local voting rates among those in their twenties have seen rapid increases in society these days, yet there is little interest in voting for student governing bodies at university. Why do you think such trends are happening?
Y: Student unions are likely being overlooked by students due to a decrease of interest in student societies. Unlike other governing entities, Student Unions change governing hands each year, and each year, the new student union operates under a new agenda. The transition from union to union administrators is not always smooth. Moreover, students have different opinions as to what their Student Union should do for them. Though the Union is supposed to represent the voice of students to the school, many students want to govern students to simply help them enjoy a better quality of life on campus by providing delicious light lunches and snacks. Without observing firsthand the work of their Student Union, students do not have faith in it. Students no longer have confidence in their Student Union, and as such, are not turning out to vote during elections.
HU: Students are showing less and less interest in Student Union elections because life has changed. Today, there is no sense of community at university. University students are not raising their voices for better quality lives nor are they interested in politics. Today students are more interested in self-reliance and their own personal development. The Student Union is not seen as a ‘self-governing’ organization that represents students’ voice but as a service organization that manages school festivals and the general welfare of students. There is also the belief that management of such affairs can be done without a student representative. As a result, the Student Union is no longer considered important. In such situation, the reproduction of workers in the Student Union becomes difficult that students seldom seek to be part of the Student Union and Student Union elections lack proper promotional activities that gather interest and inspire students to vote.
SM: The answer to this question is a difficult one. It is well understood that every organization needs a representative, one who is responsible and willing to bear the burden on behalf of students. Perhaps it is that students cannot manage the position that they are not willing to campaign for Student Union; they might find it too challenging to study and fulfill all duties required by members of the Student Union. It could also be, well at Sookmyung at least, that regulations require candidates for Student Union to be in their fifth, sixth, or seventh semester before running for the position. However, it is crucial for students during these semesters at school to prepare for and actively seek employment, which could be another reason students hesitate running for Student Union. Furthermore, students’ interest in elections is high yet voter turnout is low, so at Sookmyung Women’s University, the school is currently without a Student Union.
HY: Little faith in student unions is due to the disappearing trust between students and the Student Union. The Student Union should work harder to recover this loss of trust, and the best way to recover this trust is to cooperate to resolve problems together.