K-pop stars’ degrees revoked after investigation

Seven high-profile South Korean pop stars have had their university degrees revoked by South Korea’s education ministry after ongoing investigations into universities’ special treatment for artistes and athletes.

The private Dongshin University was found to have delivered degrees to the stars although they had barely attended classes.

The ministry this week cancelled the degrees of the K-pop stars – as Korean bands popular around Asia are known – issued by Dongshin University, situated in Naju in South Jeolla province, after a ministry hearing with the university on 14 January which found that the university had credited appearances on television, concerts and other activities as ‘attendance’, as part of the institution’s internal regulations.

But the ministry found that the regulations did not take effect until 2015, while the students’ attendance was registered going back to 2010 even when the men were not present, in what the ministry said amounted to preferential treatment.

According to the ministry, the university also provided scholarships worth KRW59.5 million (US$53,000) to some of them from 2010 to 2011 “without due procedure”.

"The ministry will take stern action against corruption regarding college entrance and diplomas, as it gives huge social impact and shakes the foundation of whole educational institutions," Education Minister Yoo Eun-hae said in a statement this week.

Criticism over preferential treatment

There has been widespread criticism in Korea, known for its gruelling university entrance exams and after-school cramming culture, of preferential treatment given to celebrity pop stars, actors and sportspeople entering top universities through special admissions procedures which allow them to bypass rigorous admissions and attendance requirements.

The universities often use the admission of stars to promote their institutions and to boost the number of celebrity names in their alumni lists and increase their public visibility.

Many of the practices which the government says are corrupt have come under ministry scrutiny. The sweeping government inspection of universities’ special treatment was prompted by the leak of a list of athletes accepted under an ostensibly merit-based admission system by Yonsei University.

In April 2017 the ministry tightened university attendance rules for sports competitors, making it compulsory to attend all regular classes, and for universities in the wake of the high-profile scandal surrounding Chung Yoo-ra, an equestrian and daughter of a close friend of former president Park Geun-hye.

Chung’s admission to the prestigious Ewha Womans University, Seoul, was cancelled in 2016 after a government investigation into Ewha’s preferential treatment in admissions and grading. The government’s investigation into that case also led to jail terms for Ewha university’s former president and its head of admissions.

Degrees revoked

In the latest case at Dongshin University, the pop stars whose degrees were revoked were named as Lee Gi-kwang, Yong Jun-hyung and Yoon Doo-joon of the boyband Highlight, formerly known as BEAST until 2016; Jang Hyun-seung, a former member of BEAST; and Seo Eun-kwang and Yook Sung-jae of the boyband BTOB.

Also stripped of his degree was folk singer Chu Ga-yeoul, who was appointed an adjunct professor to Dongshin University’s department of applied music even though the singer did not have a bachelor degree at the time, and was himself enrolled in regular classes at the institution that he could not attend as it clashed with his teaching schedule.

The former BEAST members’ preferential treatment was first revealed last August when a broadcast station announced that the band members had received preferential treatment for attendance, scholarship and graduation, including receiving full scholarships during their four years at the university.

At the time, Around Us Entertainment – the talent agency managing Highlight – issued a detailed statement saying the band members’ previous management agency, Cube Entertainment, had dealt with the university.

“Through a special rolling admission process, Yong Jun-hyung got into the practical music department, while Yoon Doo-joon and Lee Gi-kwang went into another department (broadcast entertainment) with the regular admission process. The university had also said at the time that they wanted to give BEAST a special scholarship because having them at their school elevated the school’s status.”

“Because the [BEAST] members at the time were busy with their performances, album promotions and concerts, their agency at the time [Cube Entertainment] decided their schedules. They followed the schedule that was given to them. Even during the enrolment process, it was Dongshin University who reached out to them first. All contact with Dongshin University was managed by their agency,” the statement said.

It added: “Of course, it is true that the members were not able to attend as many classes compared to full-time students who devote themselves to their studies. However, the members worked as promotional ambassadors for the school, attended classes with other students, took exams, and faithfully participated in other events held by the school. When their schedules absolutely would not allow otherwise, they got permission from the school to write their exams separately.

“Even so, the members all feel sorry and regretful that they were not able to attend school as faithfully as their peer students.”

The university also issued a statement at the time denying there was special treatment.

The four BEAST members went on to graduate studies at other universities after obtaining their degrees from Dongshin.