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Disgruntled students decry online university classes

2,744 students file class-action suit against universities, country, demanding tuition refunds

University students hold a press conference in front of the Seoul Central District Court on May 6 ahead of the first hearing in a class-action lawsuit over tuition refunds. (Yonhap)
University students hold a press conference in front of the Seoul Central District Court on May 6 ahead of the first hearing in a class-action lawsuit over tuition refunds. (Yonhap)
The COVID-19 pandemic forced universities to turn to online classes last year. As the coronavirus swept the country, both students and professors struggled to adapt to video-based courses.

But more than three semesters into the pandemic, students are discontented with the quality of the online classes.

“After taking the midterm exam in one of my core courses, the professor did not upload online classes for four weeks without any notice,” a student told The Korea Herald.

“The professor then suddenly posted a notification that the classes will be uploaded for four consecutive days. Two days later, the professor disappeared after uploading only one class.”

Some professors are not even bothering to prepare for the new semester, students say.

“A professor used the same video, which was recorded from the previous semester,” another student said.

“We know that professors reuse the (same) course material, but I feel like using the same video from the earlier semester crosses the line. The voice is not even in sync with the video.”

According to a third student, her professor did not upload classes on time on several occasions. Once the professor only posted the text of a lecture without any visuals, she added.

Asked if they had done anything about it, the three anonymous students attending different schools said they could not actively raise the issue with their professors as they were worried about academic penalties.

Most of the complaints have come from students, but some professors are criticizing their colleagues for unprofessional behavior.

“There are numerous professors given permission to leave to America (during the pandemic). They are half-heartedly teaching online courses by not teaching the proper amount of hours and not giving students the proper education to compete in life,” an assistant professor at a private university in Seoul told The Korea Herald.

“Moreover, they are not available for office hours. The university still wants full or almost full tuition from students, though.”

Universities seem to have given up on improving the quality of their online classes. A university official working at the faculty affairs department said the school does not have any regulations forcing professors to teach classes in a certain way. That is up to each professor, he added.

Calling for tuition refunds

According to a nationwide survey conducted in February by the All-Korean University Student Council Network, 91.3 percent of the 4,107 student respondents said tuition refunds were necessary.

And on May 6, the Seoul Central District Court held its first hearing in a class-action suit filed by 2,744 students against 47 universities and against the country. The plaintiffs are demanding 1 million won ($897) per student attending private school and 500,000 won per student at public school.

University students pay an average of 6.73 million won per six-month semester, according to government data.

A joint student group demanding tuition refunds, headed by the All-Korean University Student Council Network, said 110 student plaintiffs had pulled out of the litigation after facing pressure from their schools.

“The students took midterm exams amid online courses being reused, universities not guaranteeing the quality of classes, reoccurring connection errors to the server and continuously changing in-person class policies,” the group said.

“In regards to repeatedly raised issues of students’ right to learn and unsupervised online classes, universities have consistently responded that they are being taken care of.”

Calling on the court to deliver a just ruling, the group added that the Education Ministry and universities must address students’ needs.

Last year the government amended the law to give students the opportunity to take part in a tuition review committee and negotiate for scholarships or reduced tuition.

But according to the student group, only 12 of the 290 universities nationwide have refunded around 10 percent of their students’ tuition fees or taken corresponding measures.

“The schools’ stance is that they are not responsible for violating the students’ right to learn as remote classes happened under special circumstances,” said Park Hyun-seo, the lawyer representing the student plaintiffs.

Universities said the labor costs were the same even without in-person classes and they had to pay extra to set up systems for online courses, according to Park.

The lawyer said a government representative had submitted a letter to the court arguing that tuition refunds depended on the policies of individual universities and that the country had no obligation to come up with a tuition refund plan.

The next hearing will take place July 22.

By Kan Hyeong-woo (hwkan@heraldcorp.com)
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