Students can make governments fall, but not fees

South Korean students’ unions have been wholly ineffective in curbing tuition fee rises, paper finds

July 17, 2014

Student activism in South Korea has toppled governments and ousted a military dictatorship, but it has been unable to curb the rapid rise in tuition fees, a study says.

Despite the perceived power of students’ unions, academics at Seoul National University have concluded that they have been ineffective at halting recent leaps in tuition fees.

In a paper in Studies in Higher Education, Jung Cheol Shin, Hoon-Ho Kim and Hong-Sam Choi, from Seoul’s department of education, examined whether having a politically active students’ union made any difference to a university’s tuition fee levels between 2000 and 2008.

They calculated the levels of activism at 115 Korean universities from evidence of campus demonstrations, boycotts of tuition fee payments and takeovers of university buildings. They found that tuition fees rose just as sharply at institutions where there was widespread activism as at those where none had taken place, concluding that “political orientation has no effect on college fees”.

The authors said that they were surprised by the apparent powerlessness of the bodies because students have played a pivotal role in changing Korean society, featuring heavily in almost all moves towards greater democracy and civil freedoms.

The student movement is generally credited with bringing down Korea’s First Republic over allegations of rigging elections in 1960, and it played a major role in the 1987 “June Struggle” that ended a military dictatorship, they say.

“The Korean government does not allow a nationwide student union because it fears strongly organised student power,” the authors observe.

To explain unions’ lack of influence on fees, they posit that students share universities’ aims of becoming “world-class”. Also, the lack of high-quality alternatives means that top universities can exploit their positions to dampen activism.

However, change could be on the cards, the authors say, after massive public rallies over tuition fees in 2011 in the wake of the economic crash. Those led to a national tuition fee review committee, which said that student commissioners must make up 30 per cent of the university boards setting tuition fees.

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