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Of the Students, By the Students, For the StudentsThe need for transparency at Yonsei coop
Kim Ja-eun  |  jaeunkim@yonsei.ac.kr
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2014.10.31  09:36:50
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WITHIN YONSEI university, it is quite normal to see shops with names that end in “Saem.” “Saems” such as Gorul-saem, Burul-saem and Boram-saem are all managed by the Yonsei University cooperative (Yonsei coop) or Saeng-hyup in Korean. According to the Korea University Cooperative Federation (Coop Federation), university coops, including the Yonsei coop, have been established in order to support the welfare of its members. Welfare is an extremely broad concept that covers the well being and happiness of the members. Then, does the coop truly exist for the benefits of students? More specifically, is the Yonsei coop “of the students, by the students and for the students”?

 

All about the University Cooperative Federation

            So, what is a coop? The Oxford Dictionary defines it as “an organization owned and run jointly by its members, with its profits or benefits shared among them.” The basic concept is to use the paid membership fees to develop its facilities and systems, and then return them back to its members. A university coop is run in a similar sense for its members, who could be students, faculty and other employees that work at the school.

            The coop is an organization that is run by the people of the university. The main principle of the coop is simple and strong: of the students, by the students for the students. Each part of the principle is fulfilled through various businesses and management systems. For example, the Coop Federation supports the welfare of the students through various stores; students can purchase convenient everyday-life items at these stores on campus. Also, since the coop purchases and produces in bulk, it can sell certain items that are better quality but at a lower price to the students. To fulfill these goals, several management principles govern the university coop. The first principle of the coop is not to make any profit – which is why the coop sells items at each prime cost. Thus, any surplus profits from the coop are redistributed back to the members. The surplus is either invested in the facilities of the coop or is redistributed to the coop members through scholarships. Another principle is that the members of the coop are the decision makers. The students who pay membership fees to the coop are the investors, managers and owners, at the same time. Through this principle, the members can make a suggestion regarding certain items on menus, the facilities and products sold within the stores.

In South Korea, there are currently 32 universities that have a coop. Since the coop in every university is run independently, each coop has its own operating system. As long as the coop embraces the basic concepts of a “coop,” there are no fixed or definite rules about how a coop in a university should be run, who should be part of the committee, or even how one can become a member. In Yonsei, the most widely used shops run by the coop are Goreul-saem and Altteul-saem. Also, Yonsei coop provides travel service to help students and members of the coop to purchase bus tickets to travel outside of Seoul, especially during traditional holidays.

 

1983 – The Yonsei coop begins with a vending machine and a store with a name Hayan-saem

1988 – The coops in South Korean universities began through Sogang University.

1989 - The former University Cooperative Federation was established.

1993 - The University Cooperative Federation strived to legalize itself.

December 1994 - Yonsei coop was established.

March 1995 – Yonsei coop begins its sales.

June 1998 - The council meeting of University Cooperative Federation was launched.

February 2001 - The Korea University Cooperative Federation was formed.

 

 

According to Lee Hang-seo (Chief of public relations, Yonsei coop), it seems that the management and economic conditions of Yonsei coop is currently growing at a steady rate. The establishment of Yonsei International Campus (YIC) has allowed the coop to further extend their business. Since there are little to no other facilities close to the YIC, the students actually used the coop more often than expected. As a result, Yonsei coop is in a positive financial state, with its sales increasing.

 

 

Yonsei coop is run by students, true or false?

            Behind this prosperity of the coop, a lack of transparency exists. This stands out in mainly three areas: student representative selections, student involved activities and management and administrative systems. As a basic foundation, a coop must be established on behalf of the students. Therefore, Yonsei coop consists of general delegates, a board of directors and auditors; and students serve under these positions. The general delegates of the coop are chosen through recommendations from members of the Students’ Union, chairman of the board and past delegates. The coop receives recommendations for delegates from each college, such as liberal arts and engineering, through a meeting held by the steering committee. There are also four auditors each of who are teachers, students or workers of the coop that have been recommended by the members. Through recommendation process seems fair, the selection of delegates, directors and auditors lack transparency.

            Even if the students have positions under these categories and despite the idea that a coop must be made of the students, the actual percentage of students from the total is comparatively low. There are a total of 118 representatives that make decisions on behalf of Yonsei coop, which consist of 30 teachers, 30 members, 30 undergraduate students, 25 graduate students and 3 coop workers. Hence, a total of 55 students participate as official representatives of coop, which is approximately 46% of the total. With students taking less than 50% of the seats, it remains as a question whether the coop is actively reflecting students’ ideas and more importantly, operated by them.

Moreover, the official Yonsei coop site is not updated on a constant basis. Currently many of the data and information on the site, such as how much scholarships were given out or how people can get full time jobs at Yonsei coop, are dated as 2006. Thus, with even the official site containing the outdated information, it remains opaque to even students who are currently running the coop. In these areas, Yonsei coop fails to be a good model of a university coop, unlike the Sejong University coop. The chief director of Sejong University coop is none other than – a student. Moon Hyo-kyu is the first chief director of a university coop in South Korea. Perhaps this is the model of a coop that is actually run by students.

            At Yonsei, not only is the number of student representatives low, but also the actual process and guidelines of how they are chosen appears to be opaque. Many students are even unaware of the fact that there is a social structure. Several students, who requested anonymity, could not hide their shocked faces, as they heard about this structure for the first time. This proves that the process of how students become student representatives of the coop is unknown to most students. Also because these representatives are selected based on recommendations, there is a high possibility that the selections are made through personal connections. Recommendations by the Students’ Union are especially doubtful, since there are no exact guidelines for recommendations to prove why and how certain students were recommended. Such absence of exact guidelines and documents are definitely recipes for corruption.

            The lack of student-involved activities is an increasing concern, since one of the businesses that Yonsei coop aims to complete includes various activities and events in which students are involved. For example, Sejong University coop hosts programs such as “Making kimchi” and “sharing coal briquettes.” In which students, workers, teachers and plain citizens around the area of Sejong University can participate in. Yet, in Yonsei, the news that the coop has run such event that embraces such a broad spectrum of people, especially students, are still unheard of. Furthermore in this semester, the Han ga wi gwi hyang dan, the event that provides bus tickets to students during Choo suk, which were originally hosted by Yonsei coop, became the work of Solution. It seems that the originally designated tasks of coop are not only rare, but also dwindling as well.

            Last, but definitely not the least, the opacity of management and administrative systems seem to be the biggest problems. The first difficulty is that students must call the Yonsei coop in order to check if they are members of the Yonsei coop or not; the freshmen can only find out about their membership after the end of their first term. In principle, any undergraduate or graduate student, professors and employees who have paid the fee can become members. At Yonsei University, freshmen can choose to pay 5,000 fees, in order to become a member of the coop, during the tuition payment period. However, if they want to know that if they have actually become a member, they have to directly call the office. Also, the nonmembers who want to become members have to follow a very inconvenient process. They must pay the fee, in person, by visiting the Yonsei coop. This is incredibly inconvenient, compared to the electronic payment system provided by Ewha Womans University coop. The official Ewha Womans University coop site provides very detailed step-by-step instructions on how students can become members of the coop and to which bank account students can use to pay their fees. This is simply one of the many examples that perhaps Yonsei coop may take into account in improving and updating the management and administrative systems.

 

1.     Once somebody becomes a member of the coop, what kind of benefits can they receive?

Those who are members of the coop may receive mainly two benefits: scholarships and opportunities for part-time jobs at the coop. The amount of scholarships that each student receives is different because the quantity that is given varies according to the surplus from the previous term, and the financial statuses of those who applied for the scholarships. As for the part-time jobs, members can apply to work at saems such as Hanul-saem and Hayan-saeum.

2.     Why is there no “coop-owned” shop at the New Millennium Hall?

This is because when the New Millennium Hall was built, the administration of the housing office of Yonsei University signed a contract with the company Dong Won which gave them the management authority of the building. There are chances of a coop store being built in the New Millennium Hall only if the contract is no longer valid or it goes through compensation or a new agreement.

3.     Why did the cosmetics store Mi+ next to Goreul-saem close?

Due to an unfortunate decrease of sales and the completed validity of the contract, Mi+ has been closed, allowing additional space at Goreul-saem.

4.     How are the names of Saem chosen?

Every time a new store opens, the Yonsei coop holds a public subscription among the students to choose a name. The committees would then have a meeting and decide which name suits the store best.

 

 

No ear to speak to

            Communication is the key in any relationship, especially in large organizations such as coops. Whether the communication is done in an electronic, written or spoken form, there needs to be a constant flow of information that comes and goes from both sides. However it seems that the Yonsei coop fails to fulfill its duty to provide information to students in three areas. There is the lack of communication in several areas, no mid-reports of situations and the exact benefits and activities are not clear to students which.

            In addition, Yonsei coop does not provide a proper system through which students can express their dissatisfactions towards the coop and check if their claims are reflected. Many official university coop sites have tabs such as the Q&A section, in which students can upload their questions, concerns or suggestions about the coop and have them answered by the coop. Nevertheless, the Yonsei coop has a rather dormant Facebook page and website and no system through which students can make suggestions. As a result, the personal phone calls made by the students become mere complaints. Currently, even the complaints concerning the Yonsei coop are that dealt with by Solution, due to lack of such systems. Without the proper system through which the coop can listen to the students’ voice and reflect on them, the idea that the coop being the organization “of, by, and for the students” seems distant.

            Other than the lack of communication, another concern is that solid benefits for members are also missing. For all the students who were enrolled into Yonsei before the year of 2013, it was mandatory for them to pay their members’ fees to the Yonsei coop. However, from the beginning, students were not clearly informed of the benefits they can enjoy as members and the exact purpose of Yonsei coop. As members who paid the fee to the coop, students had the right to know of this important information, but the coop failed to address this major issue. An anonymous student in the class before the year of 2013 revealed, that explanations by the coop were not given at all and therefore thought of his \5,000 payment to coop as a trivial thing.

            A supposed solution for this problem is the establishment of a mileage system, in which students can find out about the benefits they can receive on their own. For example, Ewha Womans University has a mileage system in which 5% of the purchase the coop members made at coop stores is saved as mileage points. These mileage points then can be used just like normal cash to purchase items at the coop in the future. Yet one important factor is that this system is possible only if the student proves her membership through an electronic coop membership card; which is issued after the membership payments are made. The system is meaningful in that students can check how they can benefit from being a member of the coop at any time. They can understand how the fee they paid to the coop can benefit them in everyday life quite clearly.

            The unclear process of receiving benefits provided for Yonsei coop members is another problem. The two benefits the members of Yonsei coop can receive as of now are the opportunities to apply for scholarships and part time jobs provided by the Yonsei coop. However, one uncomfortable truth lies in the process of applications for scholarships and part time jobs. This is because the Yonsei coop does not identify exactly if the students that applied for such benefits are members or not. According to one anonymous student who had a part-time job in the store run by the coop, the application process for the part time jobs is as follows. There is an announcement made on the homepage of Yonsei coop site, where the students write their names, student ID numbers and the part time job they wish to be assigned in. The Yonsei coop then reads through all of the applications of students then contact the selected ones. Hence, a non-member received a benefit that only members were supposed to receive. Through this, it is obvious that there are several problems lying in the procedure of distributing them back to students. As always, Yonsei coop has posted a notice that advertises their scholarships for this term. Hopefully the selection process will be clarified, now that there are eyes watching.

*                 *                 *

            Currently, many Yonseians are making good use of the services provided to them by the coop, but it seems as though there are still numerous areas that are in need of improvement. If the areas in which possible corruption can occur in the future are not mended quickly, it may be too late once the corruption forms pus and eventually produces an inevitable stench. The Yonsei coop must take these areas of concern seriously, rather than basking in the current positive financial state and the students’ high satisfaction rates, in a broad sense. The fundamental principle of a cooperative is that a coop is made of the students, by the students and for the students. Can Yonsei coop answer with confidence that it is made of the students, by the students and for the students? This question also, lies in midair waiting to be answered.

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