Students trap staff in face-off over government aid

It was an astonishing sight. Some 1,600 policemen had gathered on the Ewha Womans University campus in Seoul in late July, some of them forcing past protesting students to escort four professors and a staff member out of the main hall where they had been trapped for almost 46 hours due to a student sit-in.

Students accused the administration of the country’s prestigious women’s university of overreacting and abusing their authority in calling police to what was a peaceful protest. A number of students were injured in scuffles as police tried to forcefully disperse the students.

The face-off between students and the leadership at one of the world’s largest women’s universities erupted over a plan to establish a government-funded college of continuing education at the private university founded in the 1880s by Christian missionaries.

The so-called ‘Light up your future in Ewha’ or LiFE programme was to offer flexible bachelor degrees in new media, health, beauty and fashion to women who had been unable to pursue higher education after secondary school.

Each year, starting in 2017, Ewha planned to admit some 150 women over the age of 30 who had been working at least three years. Universities selected for the project are promised government financial aid of KRW3 billion (US$2.7 million) per institution on average.

Angered that they had not been consulted on the plan which, among other things, they feared could divert top faculty to teach the LiFE programme, Ewha students staged several days of sit-ins, with hundreds protesting on 28 July when the university administration met to change the university’s regulations to set up the new college under the Ministry of Education’s policy to improve the employment rate of high school graduates and strengthen lifelong education.

However, critics accused students of being elitist, saying they were worried that the new night college would affect Ewha’s reputation as the country’s premier women’s institution, requiring top grades for entry.


The protests escalated after the 30 July police presence, with some 3,600 students taking part in a campus sit-in on 10 August, with support from alumnae and an association of 120 Ewha professors who came together during the protests to denounce the night school plan.

"We are angry at [Ewha Womans University] President Choi Kyung-hee because she did not discuss the university’s projects with the students," the professors said in a statement.

In statements to the media, the students said the university was attempting to “trade a 130-year legacy” of outstanding education for a KRW3 billion (US$2.7 million) profit-making enterprise selling diplomas in “non-academic” areas.

Students said the university’s ‘Global Continuing Education Centre’, a lifelong education institute, already catered for those wanting to retrain. “Most of the majors [subjects of study] at the new college do not have academic value and are customised to [fulfil] industry demand,” students said in a statement provided to University World News.

Courses in health, beauty and fashion, which the university promoted as a “specialised model for women”, merely entrenched traditional gender roles, they said.

The government project announced at the end of last year is different from previously established lifelong learning institutes in universities which deliver less formal programmes as it aims to deliver undergraduate degrees.


The university leadership backed down on 3 August after a week of protests, and as public opinion turned against the university after it called the police.

Amid conflicting reports, the police confirmed the university’s council members called 23 times for help insisting they were being “illegally confined”, though students say they provided food and allowed council members to use their mobile phones.

Faced with calls to resign, embattled university president Choi was forced to issue an official apology for the police presence which students said outnumbered students eight to one. “The university will halt planned procedures for the night college and collect opinions on the plan. These will be reflected in any future decisions,” Choi said in a 3 August press conference at the university.

Choi claimed the university had been unable to communicate with students beforehand due to “time constraints in the procedure”.

“We have requested the students to stop the sit-in and take part in talks with faculty members,” she said.

But the student sit-in – which was still continuing at the time of publication – has now become part of a bigger student protest against the university’s autocratic leadership style and commercialised approach to running the institution. “Students will maintain the sit-in protest at the main building until procedures for retracting from the plan are officially completed,” the students said in a statement.

But some are still criticising the students as “elitist” for opposing the new facility which would improve women’s employability.

Park Sungeun, a student in Ewha’s department of political science and diplomacy, said the new college would provide opportunities for women to get a degree in a society that emphasises degrees. “Saying the ‘beauty-wellness’ [courses] are not of academic value is just elitism. In the old days Ewha University was a university for women who had no rights, and [it gave them] opportunities to learn,” she said.

Ewha Womans University alumna, Cho Yunhi, a teacher at Busan Geumseong High School, said the university should not be a bastion for the privileged. “It is a base for women’s education, to provide learning opportunities for women who lost their chances earlier. We can't blame the university for applying for [government] financial aid in the face of actual financial needs to improve the institution.”

Wider implications

The Ewha debacle has wider implications, and could have an impact on the lifelong education college project at other universities. Dongguk University students staged a protest on 10 August, denouncing the government for pressuring their university into participating in the project. They were followed by a 11 August student protest at Changwon National University on the same issue.

An announcement on the first six universities taking part in the project was made by the education ministry on 5 May. They are Daegu University, Myongji University, Pukyong National University, Seoul National University of Science and Technology, Inha University and Jeju National University.

But the ministry only announced on 16 July that Ewha Womans University, Dongguk University, Changwon National University and Hanbat National University would also participate, giving these institutions less than a month to prepare their submission to the ministry, including devising a high quality curriculum, and then communicate with students and professors on the plan.

Lee Hye-Jung, director general of the Institute for Education and Innovation and an Ewha alumna, said: “Hurriedly constructed colleges with faculty members assigned on additional posts and without a high-quality curriculum will lower the quality of education. Such projects can't foster equality of learning opportunities.”

Han Sungan, a professor of economics at Youngsan University, said that while learning opportunities were needed, the curriculum is problematic. “I don't think 'wellness’ or new media production needs to be taught as a major subject for trained workers. Rather than work skills, they need something that can help them reinterpret their experience and make an intellectual leap.”

Government funding

With most private universities facing a budget crunch due to a freeze in tuition fees and a half-price tuition fees policy, as well as a decrease in the student population, private universities are more reliant on government financial aid. This leads to conflicts between institutions and their students who oppose commercialisation, professors say.

Students and professors are also concerned about the government using such aid to exercise greater control over private universities.

"Receiving large amounts of funding from the government can prevent institutions from criticising the ministry's policies, as well as exercising their full autonomy," said Kim Sung-su, policy director at civic group World Without Worries about Shadow Education, which campaigns against private education.

Acknowledging the issues, Byun Jae-ill, chief policy strategist of the main opposition Minjoo Party, said on 16 August: “The Minjoo Party will analyse all financial aid projects including the lifelong education college project and prepare counter-measures for the financial aid problems.”