“SINCE NOVEMBER, my life has been on standby...everything has been so unsure,” said Lecturer Lee*, a lecturer at Yonsei University in an interview with The Yonsei Annals. After teaching at Yonsei for more than ten years, she has been told that her job will not be guaranteed in the following semester. “I feel like I’m being punished. I’ve given my time and efforts to this school, but nobody seems to care,” lamented Lecturer Lee. Her story is not just of an individual, but of a group of lecturers. Ironically, the uncertainty they now face is all because of the Ministry of Education (MOE)’s newly revised 2018 Higher Education Law (hereby the Lecturer Law), aimed to protect the labor rights of the lecturers. However, the changes that followed did the opposite, leaving many without employment. The law not only seems to be harming the lecturers, but is also bringing negative consequences to Yonsei University overall: so how is the Lecturer Law affecting us?
What is the Lecturer Law?
In 2010, Seo Jung-Min, a part-time lecturer at Chosun University, committed suicide after feeling pressure from the continued struggle of maintaining his part-time contract. The tragedy sparked a proposal for a reform of the Lecturer Law in 2011. However, the enforcement of the reform was delayed for the past seven years, because members of the National Assembly struggled to reach an agreement over matters such as the level of benefits the lecturers receive and the extent to which the universities are responsible for the financial costs from the implementation of the reform. In December 2017, the University Lecturer Law Improvement Committee** (hereby the Improvement Committee) was formed to discuss the reform and come to a consensus. On Nov. 29, 2018, the Committee’s revisions passed the National Assembly Plenary Session, and the changes were announced to take place in universities from August, 2019.
The Improvement Committee clarified specific details of the law in its proposal, placing focus on the regulations regarding the lecturers’ employment process, qualifications, and working hours.
Ideal in theory, not in practice
In response to the reform, universities have had difficulties preparing themselves to adopt the Lecturer Law into their administrative system as there are ambiguous clauses without clear guidelines or standards set from the MOE. One of the ambiguities comes from a clause regarding the lecturers’ pay during break. The proposal developed by the Improvement Committee requires universities to pay all lecturers during school breaks, but leaves details, such as their wages, to be decided by the universities. In an interview with the Annals, the Dean of the Academic Affairs Team in Yonsei University, Son Young-Jong (Prof., Dept. of Astronomy) said, “We need a clear set of standards on the wage and time from the government so that we can make respective changes to our system. Without a strict guideline, it’s an inconvenience to the lecturers too, as these standards may differ from one school to another.”
The MOE initially estimated the budget for all domestic universities as ₩5.5 billion for this academic year—₩4.5 billion of which allotted to the lecturers’ wages. However, the budget was finalized as ₩ 2.8 billion, almost half of what universities were expecting. “It inevitably puts more burden on us, the universities. We are left with no other choice but to make a few adjustments to our internal system so that we meet the requirements set by the new law,” explained Professor Son. However, the adjustments that were intended to improve the quality of the lecturers’ work environment seem to threaten their labor rights instead.
The irony behind the Lecturer Law
At Yonsei University, the Lecturer Law led to a decrease in courses provided and a change in the school’s internal policies regarding the lecturers. This spring semester, the school abolished a total of 98 elective courses. Professor Son from the Academic Affairs Team explained that this change was a result of its three-year-long plan that was pre-scheduled and not related to the enforcement of the Lecturer Law. However, a student organization, Yonsei University Lecturer Law Restructuring Joint Counteract Committee**** (hereby the Counteract Committee) pointed out that the school also included the criterion of whether the course was taught by a full-time professor or a part-time lecturer when making its decision on the abolishment. The committee explained that the school, to some extent, kept the courses taught by professors, while it cancelled the ones taught by lecturers. “Given that standard, we are convinced that the Lecturer Law did play a role in the decrease of courses. This clearly shows the school’s intention to lay off the lecturers who used to teach the now abolished courses,” stated the Counteract Committee in its wallposter published on its Facebook page in March. Despite the Lecturer Law’s intentions of protecting lecturer’s rights and stabilizing their employment, it is rather pushing them to the brink of losing their jobs.
Yonsei University has also made modifications to its internal regulations of employment by adding two new rules that help the school prepare for the upcoming implementation of the Lecturer Law: the “Responsible Lecture Hours Rule” and the “Lecture Quota Rule*****.” The former policy requires lecturers to now teach a minimum of six hours and a maximum of nine per week in a semester. Lecturer Lee said that requiring six hours—two to three courses in a semester—would negatively affect lecturers, especially those who used to only teach one course. “They provide quality education because they understand the subject better than anyone else. If those lecturers are required to teach more than one course, the quality of the lecture won’t be as good as it will not be their specialty,” explained Lecturer Lee.
The Academic Affairs Team also adopted the “Lecture Quota Rule,” which obligates each department to report the details of their employment of instructors and gain approval from the school. The Counteract Committee referred to the school’s monitoring as “censorship,” as the employment of lecturers was previously an individual freedom granted to each department. The committee feels as if the university is attempting to control the number of lecturers so that it can lessen the costs incurred from providing additional benefits to all lecturers. However, Professor Son clarified that these measures were considered necessary to meet the MOE’s requirement of the open appointment system. “The reform now requires each university to establish a separate organization that takes charge of all duties regarding the employment of human resources. Thus, it was inevitable that we adjust our policies to check in with the lecturers on their employment status,” explained Professor Son.
Along with the reform’s immediate results of layoffs and intensified regulations on the lecturers, many stakeholders such as lecturers, professors, and universities, shed light on its long-term consequences in Korea’s academia. According to the Lecturer Law, lecturers are guaranteed a renewal of an additional three-years contract after the initial year-long contract ends. However, after the four years, they have to pass a new round of employment process as required by the open appointment system to earn an additional four-years. The process will be repeated each time the contract ends. “If we are not employed again, there’s going to be a sudden gap in our career. The discontinuity makes it more difficult for lecturers to become full-time professors,” explained Lecturer Lee. She pointed out that the reform does not ensure the lecturers’ job security in the long run, leaving some of them demotivated to continue seeking their way to a full-time professor role.
However, it seems that the existing lecturers are not the only ones in difficulty, as graduate students seem to face the worst: an entry barrier. Before the MOE enforced the Lecturer Law, graduate students used to teach one or two courses per semester as part-time lecturers to earn a living while studying. However, the reform now requires candidates to have two-years-worth of experience to qualify as a lecturer, either in lecturing or researching; a standard that many graduates fail to meet as many of them have just begun their journey towards becoming a professor. The Lecturer Law is not only discouraging already employed part-time lecturers, but also prospective lecturers. The system put forth by the reform seems to be not as inclusive as it intended to be.
Unsuspected casualties among the students
In addition to the previously mentioned deletion of elective courses, students at Yonsei University experienced large-scale abolishment of its courses during this spring’s enrollment period. A 24% decrease in English elective courses at Yonsei International Campus (YIC), 20% decrease in Common Curriculum courses at the Underwood International College (UIC), 25% decrease in mandatory courses at the School of Business are only a few examples confirmed by the Counteract Committee. One striking example comes from the drastic decrease in the number of Korean writing classes provided to all freshmen at YIC. In 2018, 85 Korean writing classes were offered during the spring semester and 73 during the fall semester. However, only 59 classes were open in the spring semester of 2019. Along with such decrease in numbers, the quota of students in writing courses increased from 24 to 30 and the class time decreased from 4 to 3 hours per week.
With fewer numbers of courses provided, an increasing number of students fill each classroom compared to the previous semester. Kim Jong-hun (Soph., UIC, Asian Studies) said, “Having more students in classes where interaction is key threatens the flow of class discussion. It will eventually lower the quality of the class.” Although Professor Son from the Academic Affairs Team explained that the reduction in the courses is not related to the enforcement of the Lecturer Law, the Counteract Committee stated, “These changes didn’t just result in layoffs of the lecturers. It also affected the students, breaching their rights to course selection and education.”
In response to these noticeable changes in the courses, the Counteract Committee has been active in representing the lecturers and students by drawing attention to the disadvantages that the enforcement of the Lecturer Law casts upon them. A member of the Counteract Committee, Park Ye-chan (Soph., Dept. of Cultural Anthropology), said, “Our goal is to prevent the implementation of the Lecturer Law resulting in mass layoffs of lecturers at Yonsei. We are also trying to encourage the school to consider the students’ voices when making new regulations or changes that affect the student body.”
Since Feb. 23, 2019, the Counteract Committee conducted surveys on students’ experiences during their spring course enrollment and their awareness level on the recent reform, in an effort to bring the relationship between the two to surface. Among the 768 respondents, 90% claimed that they have “felt a breach in their education rights due to the changes in quantity and quality in the courses provided.” The Counteract Committee says that the Lecturer Law has played a role in bringing about such consequences on the courses and requested the Academic Affairs Team to publicize the number of lecturers laid off and transparently disclose the team’s process of decision making.
According to the Counteract Committee, a majority of students do not know about the Lecturer Law or the consequences it has brought upon Yonsei, as of this moment. “The Academic Affairs Team will be planning the syllabus for next semester, starting this April. We, the students, don’t have much time left to make our voices heard by the school and protect our rights to education,” says the Counteract Committee in its press release. Lecturer Lee says, “I’m afraid students will only realize their disadvantages after the university has already implemented the Lecturer Law in August. But by then it’s already too late. They should fight before, not after.”
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Although lecturers, schools, and students of Yonsei University are struggling to reach a compromise deemed “reasonable” by all stakeholders, “In the end, we are all in this together,” as Professor Son puts it. We can only hope for facilitated debates with all parties involved to reach a settlement before the official implementation of the Lecturer Law in August.
*The interviewee is referred to as Lecturer Lee upon her request for anonymity.
**Original committee name in Korean: “대학강사제도 개선협의회”
***The chart was created based on the information provided in the MOE’s press release.
****Original committee name in Korean: “연세대학교 강사법관련구조조정저지 공동대책위원회”
*****Newsis: Original titles of the respective rules in Korean: “책임강의시수제” and “강사정원제”