YONSEI’S NOVEMBER 2016 was quiet, unlike Novembers on campus during previous years. Instead of a bustling and nerve-racking atmosphere, with students busily preparing for the General Student Council elections, the campus was dead silent, devoid of candidates. Considering that Yonsei until then had a General Student Council every year since 1961, this was an unprecedented situation. What are the causes of this exceptional incident and why has the student society of Yonsei retrogressed?
What is a General Student Council?
Upon its birth in 1961, Yonsei University’s General Student Council has operated as a body which not only represented students’ voices throughout the school community, but also solved problems pertaining to student welfare. The history of the General Student Council traces back to 1961 when Yonsei’s General Student Council was first created in order to advance students’ rights and independence in a time during which students’ rights were in jeopardy because of the oppressive political system.
The General Student Council thrived during the 1980s in the midst of the democracy movements nationwide. Students all over South Korea participated in demonstrations, and the General Student Council played a key role in leading the students in solidarity.
Entering the late 1990s, the South Korean socio-political environment greatly transformed following an amendment in the constitution. With a relatively stable democratic government, no longer were students fighting for their rights or the country’s needs as often as before. The atmosphere of the student society, overall, transformed into a more apathetic one compared to the past. Therefore, along with the changing atmosphere of the student society, the General Student Council transformed, as well. Instead of a student council that took lead in demonstrations and political movements, a student council that served to improve student welfare was preferred. This brought a new era of student councils with different values and approaches in comparison with the “activist councils”* of the past.
Where does the General Student Council stand?
According to this month’s Enquete, 85.8% of students replied that the main role of the General Student Council is to improve student welfare. On the other hand, 28.5% of the students replied that the main role is to cultivate awareness on social issues. An anonymous Yonseian stated on the survey that “The General Student Council should keep its neutrality as a student organization representing the student society.” On the other hand, another anonymous Yonseian stated that “Students are constituents of a nation that may be infringed of basic human rights and therefore should stand to solve socio-political problems. The General Student Council has the right, under the premise that its voice is not biased, to take a certain position.”
However, the resulting difference in perspectives is likely to cause polarization within the student society through the reflection of the contrasting mindsets about what kind of role the student council should fulfill. With the shift since the 1990s in agendas of student councils toward student welfare rather than participation in socio-political events, conflicts among students who retain different perspectives have intensified. In South Korean universities, such conflicts are known as the conflict between the “activist” and “non-activist”. Along with the increasing polarization, students who retain socio-political values opposite from those of the General Student Council remain skeptical of the student council, and this has resulted in lower levels of participation and interest. According to the Enquete results, 37.2% of the respondents stated that their interest toward the student society was only moderate, and of the students replied that they have not participated in any of the events held by the General Student Council.
As a result, it is difficult for the student society to unite, and there is a larger chance of schism. A notable example is Yonsei’s 53rd General Student Council *Collabo*’s participation in the declaration of the state of affairs. During the breakout of the scandal surrounding former President Park Geun-hye last October, many South Korean universities participated in the declaration of the state of affairs, stating the unlawfulness of Park’s involvement with Choi Soon-sil. After *Collabo*’s participation, several Yonseians debated the issue on the Yonsei Bamboo Forest Facebook Page, an online community where people can anonymously post their opinions. An anonymous comment stated that “it is wrong to participate in a socio-political event as a representative of the university, as there may be students who disagree.” On the other hand, another anonymous commenter stated that “it was rightful of *Collabo* to have participated as they had collected the students’ opinions beforehand.”
Additionally, changing socio-economic conditions in South Korea serve as another factor n the degeneration of the student society. During the 1960-1970s, when college enrollment rates were around 20%, people with university baccalaureate degrees were almost guaranteed employment upon graduation. However, entering the 21st century, it has become harder for students to find jobs given the high youth unemployment rates. According to the National Index System of South Korea, the youth unemployment rate reached 9.6% as of October 2016. As a result, students are led to focus only on employment and academic achievement and often see student activism as a distraction. Under such circumstances, is not surprising that currently there is no General Student Council.
What is needed to cultivate the importance of the General Student Council?
Likewise, students’ attention toward student governments has decreased throughout the years, ultimately leading to the absence of a General Student Council. Nevertheless, students’ attention towards the student society is essential to keep the student society running. For example, a severe consequence of the decrease in attention is the lack of monetary support toward the General Student Council. Along with the “Selective Payment Reform”** of miscellaneous fees, students are increasingly deciding not to pay. With students neglecting the importance of miscellaneous fees and the potential impact of student bodies, there has been much less monetary support toward the General Student Council. According to the Enquete, of students responded that they have not paid the Student Council fees. An anonymous Yonseian said “I felt reluctant to pay the fees when I can enjoy services offered by the General Student Council at no cost.” This is a classic “free-rider” problem regarding the payment of miscellaneous fees.
However, that is not to say that the fault goes exclusively to students. Along with the General Student Council’s efforts in maintaining a satisfactory student society and improved student welfare, the university administration should also work actively to solve problems on campus and cooperate with the General Student Council. In this matter, an anonymous Yonseian stated that “School headquarters should increase its funding toward the General Student Council not only for its projects but also for the members of the General Student Council. Currently, the school headquarters offer a minimal budget to the General Student Council, which deserves more compensation for all its efforts in activities such as the organization of Freshman Orientation and school festivals such as the *Yon-Ko* Games.”
As much as the socio-political situation of South Korea has been rather serious, the importance of the General Student Council, along with other student organizations, is to be emphasized. Not only are socio-political issues causing great concern, but problems in education itself are also worrying the student society. For instance, issues such as the Prime-Core businesses in universities or problems regarding the integrity of the distribution of the national scholarship are constantly brought up. Therefore, the role of student organizations that aim not only to express and represent students’ voices and cultivate students’ rights
, but also bring harmony and unity within the student society is important. Especially considering continuous revelations of big and small issues liable of infringing on students’ rights, solidarity among students is essential in order to bring positive change on campus and beyond.
* * *
In the upcoming month, a by-election will be held to fill in the vacancy of the General Student Council. Upon the establishment of a new General Student Council, the constituents of the Yonsei student society should not only aim to exist in symbiosis with those who retain a different perspective
, but also to be active and supportive. The potential of every General Student Council originates from the power vested by the student society. Without the necessary attention, interest, and support, the fate of the student society will remain in limbo.
*”Activist councils” vs. “Non-activist councils”: Entering the 2000s, students coined the terms “activist council” and “non-activist council”. Whereas an “activist council” refers to a student council that strongly voiced its opinions on socio-political affairs, a “non-activist council” refers to a council that mainly focused on the improvement of student welfare.
**“Selective Payment Reform”: A reform taken in 2013 which allows the students to decide whether or not to pay miscellaneous fees. The payment of miscellaneous fees was obligatory prior to the reform.