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As universities remain online amid pandemic, rebellion against high tuition continues

A student association holds a press conference in front of the Seoul Central District Court on Thursday, demanding tuition rebates. (Yonhap)
A student association holds a press conference in front of the Seoul Central District Court on Thursday, demanding tuition rebates. (Yonhap)
More than a year into the coronavirus pandemic, the country's university students are fighting not only against the virus but also with their schools over tuition refunds.

And that fight entered a new phase Thursday, as the Seoul Central District Court held a first hearing on a class action suit filed in July by nearly 3,000 students.

A student association demanding tuition refunds called on the court to make a "rightful" ruling on the case, and criticized the schools for dragging their feet on submitting documents to the court, subsequently delaying the court process.

They said around 110 student plaintiffs withdrew from the litigation in the face of pressure from their schools. In total, 2,744 students participated in the lawsuit.

"Schools have evaded their responsibilities to protect and educate students by urging them to drop their legal case," the association said, "And the Ministry of Education also failed to fulfill its duty to oversee the universities."

The global crisis caused by the coronavirus has triggered a major disruption in the way higher education institutions offer classes. As campuses shut down and instruction is being offered remotely, there have been continuing complaints from students that online instruction is not good value for money.

Still, a majority of universities, which had already been reeling from falling enrollment, argue that it is hard for them to cough up tuition, citing a rise in pandemic-related costs for setting up online classes and running disinfection and quarantine programs on campus.

According to the group, most of the universities froze, not lowered, their tuition for this year, despite growing demands for tuition rebates from many families struggling with the financial fallout of the pandemic.

The group gathered approximately 16,000 signatures for the past two months from the general public supporting its cause for tuition refunds.

Some of the school's refunds in the form of scholarships were far from enough, they said, because it was only a fraction of what students actually paid.

According to the ministry, university students pay an average of 6.73 million won ($5,980) for six-month tuition, with 7.49 million won for private universities and 4.18 million won for public ones. Among private schools, Yonsei University topped the list, with 9.15 million won.

A student body at Ewha Womans University held a press conference last week before delivering to the principle students' signatures demanding answers on their demands.

During the conference, students pointed out that technical glitches impeded online learning and the quality of online classes had not improved at all despite the school's promise to do so. Some professors were found to have recycled old class materials, they said.

They demanded the school disclose details of its spending and return part of the tuition for the first half of this year.

"The lecture seems like from last year. It is March but I could hear the sounds of cicadas in the background," said a complaint from a student cited by the group.

"I am paying 4.8 million won, even though I am still unable to use a laboratory, machinery or a computer," another said. (Yonhap)