Noonsong takes classes at home these days. She oversleeps and gets out of bed late each morning. She then grabs a simple brunch and turns on her computer to watch a lecture video posted on Snowboard (Sookmyung Women's University Learning Site). This is her daily routine. At first she enjoyed the online classes due to COVID-19 because she didn't have to face any risk of infection going to school on the crowded subway. However, as time passed, she felt it harder and harder to concentrate on class work and the quality of the educational video was lower than the education received in traditional classes. In this regard, Noonsong began to wonder why she should have to continue paying the same tuition fee even though she is not at school.
Spread of online classes
Sookmyung Women's University decided to go ahead with face-to-face classes during the first semester of 2020, but only for experimental and practical subjects, following the guidelines of the Infectious Disease Control Committee. All other classes would be online lectures for the entire semester. However, as COVID-19 spread, it became more serious in the Seoul area, so ahead of the opening of the second semester, many universities in Seoul decided to continue with remote learning. Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, remote learning has spread to almost all schools as well as Sookmyung Women's University. Students' dissatisfaction with online classes is high even though they understand the decision to move online. The reasons for poor lecture are said to be lecture quality and unusable or unavailable university facilities. One Sookmyungian in the Department of Arts & Crafts argued that she had no time to experiment with her creation. She was forced to submit her work without an opportunity for feedback and revision, and the class schedule was delayed for nearly two months. In addition, she was forced to wear a mask and maintain a distance of 2 meters in the lab, so it was difficult to even view the work of her classmates. She also complained about the difficulty viewing demonstrations by her professor.
Many students including her are not enjoying education levels received in the past. They are also not able to use school facilities. For these and other reasons, students have demanded part of the tuition fee be refunded. As there wasn't a clear and fast notice about the classes, students appealed to reduce confusion by making a guideline in pandemic area. As a result, the guideline for operating classes was announced after the first semester. However, since the first semester has passed, it seems better to return some part of tuition for the first semester. On some school Internet communities, a post demanding a refund written in blood was posted to demand a refund for the tuition. The demand for refunds has been carried out in various ways including marches, lawsuits and sit-ins. With all the voices for refunds, the "Tuition Return Movement Headquarters," formed from the UNIV NET, held a press conference at the Seoul Central District Court in Seocho-dong, Seoul. It called for tuition refunds. About 3,500 university students from 42 universities across Korea participated in a class suit. They demanded the Ministry of Education and universities refund each private university student 1 million won and each national university student 500,000 won.1) On June 15, students also held a five night six day march. They walked 150 kilometers from the Sejong Office of Education to the National Assembly in Seoul to raise awareness for the refund of tuition fees. This march and others clearly show students' opinions regarding tuition refunds. Effort by a number of students to achieve a refund is still going on. Lim Jihye, president of the student council 'Modu' at Sookmyung Women's University, said that students from 11 schools around the country are still demanding refunds and were threatened by school headquarter level to withdraw the demand and activities. However, it does not appear that students will be receiving a refund any time soon. There is still a long road to travel before students receive a tuition refund.
Where is Sookmyung student's tuition refund?
On March 2, Modu, the 52nd student council at Sookmyung Women's University, held a meeting with school administrators in the change of academic scheduling. The student council asked administrators to consider a full refund or tuition reduction for the second semester of 2020. The response received was that the university had received no guidelines from the Ministry of Education or other universities yet and that COVID-19 has brought about other costs. In subsequent meetings, the student council asked repeatedly for discussions on tuition refunds, but the school administration continually answered that it was still under consideration. On April 3, the student council pointed out the report on the second interview at the university headquarters. They said many students were demanding refunds of tuition fees excluding costs incurred due to safety measures on the posting of their official Instagram. In response, however, the university said, "We understand the position of students, but it is not possible to provide a tuition refund." The school promised to invest in approaches that would improve the quality of online lectures. At the end of the first semester and prior to the start of the second semester, the student council sent two official documents to the school requesting a disclosure of the school budget and a meeting to discuss tuition fees. However, university administration said it would not be appropriate to release such details at this time as the annual budget had not yet been finalized. On September 2, on the student council Instagram page, a post was uploaded that stated the student council had formally requested the formation of a task force team for the return of tuition fees. However, students have already made their tuition fee payments for the second semester, so the official position of the school regarding refunds is unknown.
According to a survey on tuition refunds by SMT, 73.8% (141 of 191 respondents) said that compared to last semester, when most classes were face-to-face, they felt more dissatisfaction. Respondents cited poor lecture quality, professor communication inconveniences, and difficulties receiving announcements and information regarding tests and classes.2) 67.3% (136 of 202 respondents) said they were aware of the university's stance on refunding tuition fees due to COVID-19. That is, a large number of students are aware of the situation regarding the demand for refunds, so it is important for the school to keep students informed of the situation. When asked about receiving a refund, all but one student who participated in the survey said a refund was necessary. 100% of the respondents wanted the method of tuition reimbursement to be the same way for all students, not just the amount given to certain students as scholarships. Overall the survey reveals that students at Sookmyung Women's University want a tuition reimbursement and want the school to reply quickly to the demands and take action.
The growing voice of discontent among students
Along with demands for tuition refunds due to the switch to online classes, students are demanding a return of admission fees paid by first-year students. New students who entered Sookmyung Women's University in 2020 paid an additional 472,000 won last semester. The original purpose for admission fees was due to expenses incurred to host various first-year student events such as the entrance ceremony, Orientation and Membership Training. However, COVID-19 put an end to all events, and this prompted the call for a refund of admission fees. According to a survey of first-year students, 98.6% (142 of 144 respondents) said the admission fees should be returned because almost all students were unable to take advantage or enjoy events as they were canceled.3) 59.1% (88 of 149 respondents) wanted the full amount admission fee returned as there is no disclosure of where the money was used. It was not used for events as they were canceled. On the other hand, in regards to tuition refunds, only 46.3% (93 of 201 respondents) said they wanted 50% refund. This amount was deemed suitable considering the various inconveniences and damages experienced by students, even though the first semester was conducted online.
What is the situation at other universities? In June, Konkuk University was the first university in Korea to announce a tuition fee refund. It reimbursed students 8.3% of their first semester's payments. Hanyang University, Hongik University, Dongguk University, and other private universities in Seoul have also announced tuition refunds for the first semester by giving special scholarships to all students in school. However, one student in the Department of Business Administration at Hongik University was upset at the university's method of tuition fee reimbursement, saying, "My classes were of poor quality during the first semester compared to traditional classes. I don’t think the amount of refund equates to my loss of education. It was ridiculously low." Hongik University students all received 4% reduction in tuition fees for the second semester and 4% of tuition fees paid for the first semester was returned. Sookmyung Women's University, however, has yet to make any proposals or comments on tuition refunds despite continued calls from students. The university's attitude, which remains unchanged despite the controversy, has led to growing complaints among students. Students are now becoming more active in their complaints about the damage they suffer taking online classes. Sookmyungian in the Department of Fine Arts said, "I couldn't get proper education and learning or feedback on my work last semester because my practical course was not done properly. I paid an expensive tuition fee for the use of the art studio in school but the learning I got was limited and poor, so the tuition I paid is very unfair." Since taking remote online classes has clearly damaged students' learning rights, Sookmyung Women's University will soon have to comment on its position regarding the return of tuition fees.
The voice of Sookmyungians needs to be heard
With classes being held online instead of in the classroom due to the spread of COVID-19, students are suffering from various inconveniences and damages, and they are not receiving the necessary learning support. To resolve the problem of learning right, that the Sookmyungians had suffered, discussions between the student council and the school are currently ongoing. Though there are some opinion differences between students and the school, it will take some time for a compromise. However, it seems necessary to come up with a solution as soon as possible.
1) Lee Jeongyun, "Forty-two Universities, 3,500 Students, File a Tuition Return Class Suit.", Asia Economy, July 1, 2020
2) The total number of students enrolled is 12,391, with a survey participation rate of about 1.6%.
3) The total number of first-year students enrolled is 2,407, with a survey participation rate of about 5.5%.
Lee Hwang Hayoung / Woman Section Editor
Choi Kim Seoyoon / Reporter