On March 16, Hanyang University (HYU) officially started the first semester of 2020 with online courses due to the Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19), delaying the start date of offline courses several times due to the uncertainty regarding student health. HYU eventually decided to delay the start of offline courses indefinitely until COVID-19 deactivated permanently or until a vaccine for the virus was developed. However, HYU students complained about problems with the online courses, as well as the ambiguity regarding the start of offline classes, unlike other universities that already announced they would be carrying out the entire semester online.
Not only are practical courses like PE, dance, and experiment classes objected to polarized views within the student community, but so are theoretical online courses. For instance, some students feel that the quality of their course has improved, since they can review the professor’s lecture. But, there is criticism that professors provide them with too many assignments instead of communicating with the students. Kim Dong-hyun, a Sophomore in the Department of International Studies, explains, “I see online courses from a bit of a negative perspective. I respect various means of taking lectures, but I feel dissatisfied with the quality. However, it depends on which professor’s course I take. What is most concerning about these online courses is the system of exams online. It opens the possibility for students to take the exam together to get a better grade. It might harm integrity greatly.” Despite the criticism, it turns out there has been an unintended benefit as well. A worker in the Disabled Student Support Center (DSC) at ERICA Campus explained, “Some students we support have told us that their situation has improved a lot. Some with poor vision couldn’t see what the professor was writing back then, but they could see it clearly online.” On the other hand, a worker in the DSC at Seoul Campus explained, “We have 48 students who need help, but only 73% of those are matched with student helpers. We definitely need more student volunteers to help them.”
It is not only students who have had hardships and polarized opinions about online courses. On the negative side, a Professor from the Mathematical Engineering Department showed a black screen and provided only his voice like a radio due to a lack of online course experience or a lack of understanding of how to use Blackboard. A Professor from the Physical Education Department uploaded five videos in which he appeared for a total of less than one minute. A professor of the Computer Science Department decided to hold an exam at 5 a.m., in order to prevent students from taking exams together or hiring experts to take the exam for them. But on the positive side, some professors tried their best to use this chance effectively and to utilize better methods. Lee Sang-uck, a Professor in the Department of Chemical and Molecular Engineering, explained, “First of all, the absence of communication with my students feels like a very serious problem to me. I feel so awkward just talking to a computer screen. I couldn’t get any feedback from my students right away if there was a difficult concept that I might be able to verbosely explain. Also, there was a copyright issue with the textbook company, so I had to invest three quarters of one week to record online course videos. However, I found some positive aspects of online courses during the teaching and test-making process. For the test, I made more various questions, shortened the exam time to prevent cheating, and checked the Gaussian curve to see if the test was made fairly. For the teaching, I think it will be great if I do both online and offline courses next semester. In my opinion, university students should study alone in advance and ask some questions during the course. Offline courses rely on debate, so next semester I plan to have students watch the online course and take a brief quiz on the first day of the week, and for the second day of the week, they will come to class prepared with questions to ask. This is called flipped learning, and it will be a very effective learning format.”
Unlike other universities, HYU was reluctant to decide whether to do online courses for the entire semester or not. It seemed the tuition fee refund issue was the main reason for the delay. On April 13, when the number of infected was less than 30, HYU allowed a few practical classes to take place in the classroom. On April 30, COVID-19 had zero new infections, so on May 4, HYU announced that offline courses would start selectively on May 25. Students had to take a survey for every course and vote on whether classes should be conducted online or offline. On May 7, the number of infected rose again due to people visiting clubs in Itaewon. Yet, the vote for the offline courses in HYU still went into effect. Notably, the vote was not anonymous. Some students were indirectly forced to vote “yes” for offline courses as they were afraid of being seen negatively by some professors who wanted to hold lectures in the classroom. After receiving student complaints, the surveys were conducted anonymously in the courses for which they received complaints. The biggest problem that the Office of Academic Affairs (OAA) has is that they value selectiveness. When it comes to every major decision such as how to conduct lectures, how to hold exams, and when to allow offline courses, the OAA placed all responsibility on the professors. Jang Gyeong-seon, a Deputy Manager in the OAA at Seoul Campus, explained, “The OAA had to do so because they depend on the major subjects that students take, and we intend to keep it that way next semester as well.” When asked about any compensation students might be able to receive, Lim Dong-uck, a worker in the OAA at ERICA campus, said, “The policy about compensation is not even on the discussion table yet, but we do recognize that it should be given.”
Growing Pains Are Required for Better Education
Conducting online courses was an indispensable step to take for the future. It would seem to be a high risk in terms of education for both professors and students, but it will give us high returns in the long term if we solve the remaining problems properly. Flipped learning and lowering tuition fees can be the first step. Health must be the top priority of HYU, not money. Support should be given to minorities at HYU as well.
On April 11, the Planning and Budget Office (PBO) at HYU’s ERICA Campus made public an excel file of the expenses they incurred supporting ERICA Campus student welfare related to COVID-19. However, it made students feel suspicious as to whether the budget was spent efficiently or not since certain details in the budget list, such as the number of masks and their individual costs, were not included. Combined with the complaints of the low quality of online courses, students raised their voices to request a partial refund of their tuition fees.
According to the budget spreadsheet, with the approval of the Preventive Measures Committee (PMC), a total of 380 million won was spent on three main articles: disinfection tools (100), online course infrastructure (140), and others (personnel fees, food, and extra disinfection) (140). When HYU presented these expenses for COVID-19 as a reason for why students wouldn’t be able to receive partial tuition refunds, many students couldn’t understand because the amount of tuition they paid was 78.6 billion won, compared to which the COVID-19 budget is so small. Plus, some articles in the budget spending were arguable among students due to a lack of further explanation. Park Sinwoo, a Sophomore in the Department of Transportation and Logistics Engineering, explained, “I felt quite upset about the fact that services from the budget, such as providing masks and food, mostly went to foreign students who reside in our campus dormitories. Domestic students like us were not served at all when we really needed masks before the mask policy was implemented by the Korean government. HYU didn’t even include details in the list like receipts or how many disinfection tools they purchased. Yet, HYU announced that a partial refund is not likely to be given due to an insecure education budget situation.” In the meantime, Yun Ji-seok, a Representative of the Student Union (SU) of ERICA Campus, explained, “Regarding the partial refund issue, the ERICA SU cooperated with the Gyeonggiprovince University Association (GUA), discussed the issue together, and made a joint statement in order to submit it to the Ministry of Education (MOE). Currently, the GUA is also working together with the National University Association (NUA) as well, and a roundtable discussion with the MOE has been scheduled.”
Lee Sang-yong, a Vice President in the PBO at Seoul Campus, explained, “The finances of ERICA and Seoul campuses are being managed separately so I don’t know any detail about ERICA, but I heard from the PBO that their work was paralyzed for a while after the budget was published due to continuous calls from students. Therefore, Seoul campus will not open any details related to its spending budget until next year. I already showed it to the Seoul SU but as a confidential document. I understand many students want to know how the money is being spent, but if we release it, students will never see the forest we picture but just a few trees. It will eventually bring more complaints, and we won’t be able to do our job because we will have to answer their complaints constantly.” When asked about partial refunds due to low quality online courses, he explained, “I understand well that students feel upset about their tuition fee because several events we planned to hold for freshmen this year, including the spring festival that was supposed to be held, were cancelled due to the virus. But I consider that we might be able to plan a festival twice as big in the autumn if it’s possible. Or we may also consider giving scholarships with the money that was supposed to be spent for practical classes and electricity in the buildings. Overall, my mind is that HYU should use the money that was supposed to be spent for students efficiently, but a partial refund is not possible since HYU received huge losses as well from a downturn in the business we do related to short term nondegree courses and renting.” Lee Gyung-tae, a worker in the Property Custody Team at ERICA Campus, explained, “It was so hard to buy masks in February, but at first we managed to somehow get 2,000 masks (KF80, KF94, and KN95), and now we have about 10,000 dental masks which is similar to the number of students we have. The Health Care Center (HCC) gives one mask a day to students who forget to bring one to wear. The masks were mostly given to the cleaners since the disinfection solution decays the filter inside the mask, and they need a large supply. Ansan City also supported our campus with many supplies such as 450 thermometers, ethanol, and other items. Recently, due to the virus spreading in Itaewon, discussing with the HCC and PMC, we will continue making rational decisions when it comes to purchasing.” Han Seung-ju, a staff member in the Residence Hall Administration Team at ERICA Campus, explained, “From January 27 to February 23, we divided floors for domestic and foreign students and checked their body temperatures every day. From February 24 to March 24, students were isolated in their rooms, and we had to deliver food and water in front of their doors. The food cost 8,000 won, but students only had to pay 3,500 won, with the difference being supported by non-tuition fees. Starting on March 25, we deactivated these regulations since COVID-19 seemed to be diminished. We are preparing a policy now for the students who have to visit our campus for final exams this semester. The problem is that our top priority is to first receive the students who had registered to stay in our dormitory in March and were issued a refund due to the virus. So, we cannot promise any advantage to those who live in the countryside, but our residence halls have 2,774 rooms which is a much bigger capacity than that of other universities’ dormitories.” Shin Dong-won, a worker in Hanyang Cyber University (HYCU), explained: “the difference between HYU and HYCU is that HYU uses Blackboard as a learning manage system (LMS) for lecture and exam but HYCU uses Canvas as the LMS for lecture and uses a self-made program for exam manage system (EMS). The EMS can track down its mouse pointer and prevent abusive behaviors from using another website while taking an exam.” When asked about the difference between Blackboard and Canvas, Shin provided a website link that tells Canvas can look into a student's monitor screen and provide better UI and better analysis for student’s exam result. It turned out the Blackboard is unnecessarily expensive and inefficient. HYCU tuition fee is maximum 1.6 million won (80,000 won per credit) while HYU average tuition fee is 4.2 million won, which is about three times larger than HYCU’s. It is due to the brand power, or social recognition.
Other Institutions’ Stance
Tuition fees have always been a huge issue. It is because 78% of universities are private schools. Following the principle of market competition, they have to increase tuition fees to provide better service for their students as time goes on. So, the MOE put regulations on tuition fee increases and established a law that states every private school needs to build a Tuition fee Adjustment Committee (TAC) and a University Council (UC). TAC is for adjusting the rate of tuition fee and discussing where to use it. UC is for evaluating the overall future plan of HYU and giving advice to the board of directors (BOD). The BOD, which consists of eight CEOs, is for making every final decision in terms of who to hire and where to use money. Nevertheless, the corruption that occurs in private schools is very hard to get rid of. Therefore, the MOE enabled the UC to choose two CEOs for the BOD and established another association called Private School Audit Committee (PAC). The result was astonishing. They found many cases of the CEOs of private schools in the BOD run by family, ignored the UC, and abused students’ tuition fees for their own benefits. In fact, HYU is also run by the Kim family after HYU founder, Kim Yeon-joon. Yet, it is still unclear how to regulate them properly. According to the Korea Higher Education Research Institute (KHEI) contention, Higher Education Finance Grant Act (HEFGA) should be passed in the 21st National Assembly. The HEFGA states that Korean Government should take full responsibility for Higher Education and support all the financial costs with taxes they earn, as same as middle and high school tuition fees are free. Currently, seven trillion won is supported in the national budget for Higher Education. If the HEFGA is passed, 15 trillion won can be supported which means all universities tuition fee will be free, and there will be no hierarchy system like IVY league. To compare this with another country, in 1946, Germany abolished the law for tuition fees so that chances for education are given equally to every student, and in 1969, the election for head was held in Berlin University so that every people’s voice can be heard. For HYU, the head is not elected by Hanyangians but by the BOD, and HYU tries their best to increase tuition fee of foreign students every year due to the regulation put by the MOE for the domestic students. In the meantime, professors are not satisfied with HYU and seem to begin preparing for establishing Professor Labor Union (PLU) this year. If the PLU is established and demands for better incomes and welfare, the students might have to pay more money in the future, or the money spent for students is likely to decrease.
The Fall of the Meritocracy
Turning this crisis into opportunity, not only HYU students but the NUA leading every university student in Korea should speak out for passing the HEFGA so that education can be provided fairly regardless of the income level. Partial refund might be helpful for them in the short term but in the long term, the HEFGA is needed. Head of HYU must be elected by Hanyangians, not the board. Provided that the PLU emerges, HYU must negotiate well so that professors can do their research with no concerns of financial issues.
Jeon Jae-hyun firstname.lastname@example.org