Top private university’s admissions irregularities exposed

A comprehensive audit of one of South Korea’s top institutions, Yonsei University in Seoul, revealed some 86 cases of ‘irregularities’ including that professors at the university gave the daughter of one of the university’s former vice presidents preferential treatment in oral tests in order to admit her to the university’s graduate school of business.

The education ministry said police procedures had been launched against the professors involved.

The government has said it will conduct audits by next year of some 16 major private universities which have never been inspected – unlike regular inspections of public universities every three years – in order to improve transparency and eradicate corruption in higher education. Some 86% of South Korea’s universities are private.

Among the 86 cases of ‘irregularities’ uncovered, unfair admissions, evaluations and recruitment issues were particularly prominent, according to the ministry’s audit report, made public on 14 July.

The ministry said 26 staff and faculty would face disciplinary action as a result of evidence gathered during the audit. Eight cases have been filed for violations of regulations including allegations of misconduct or embezzlement and violations of private school laws.

In 2016-19, 49 departments in the graduate school did not complete or did not properly prepare admission screening documents. The ministry said some 1,080 copies of admission documents for the four years from late 2016 to late 2019 had disappeared.

These included documents relating to the admission application in 2018 to Yonsei’s graduate school of political science and diplomacy by the son of former justice minister Cho Kuk, who was forced to resign in October 2019 after less than a month in ministerial office over admissions favours granted to his daughter and other allegations of corruption.

Cho returned to his former position as a law professor at Seoul National University but was stripped of his professorship in January this year.

Other admissions irregularities

The 250-page report on the Yonsei audit – the first in the prestigious university’s history – unearthed other admissions irregularities and alleged misuse of university funds by at least a dozen professors who used university ‘corporate cards’ to pay for nightclub entertainment and golf.

A total of KRW1.518 billion (US$1.3 million) was spent using corporate cards without additional evidence by professors at the university and its affiliated hospitals, including over KRW278 million (US$233,000) at nightclubs. Another KRW2.563 billion (US$2.14 million) was spent at golf courses on the university’s account, prompting protests by students against corruption at the university.

Students are particularly incensed at a time when they are demanding tuition fee reductions as courses moved online due to the coronavirus outbreak. Private universities in particular have said they do not have the funds to cover tuition fee reductions.

Admissions issues figured prominently. The audit found that the daughter of Lee Kyung-tae, the former vice president at Yonsei’s international campus at Incheon, allegedly benefited in 2016 when six professors on the university’s evaluation committee allegedly fabricated her oral test scores to admit her to Yonsei’s graduate school of business.

The audit report noted that during the first part of the admissions process, based on documents submitted by the applicant, Lee’s daughter was ranked ninth out of 16 applicants, but she was later found to have passed the subsequent oral test with a perfect score, while the top two applicants were eliminated after receiving much lower marks in the oral test intended to evaluate subject knowledge, aptitude and passion. She was the only one of the 16 to be selected.

The audit report said: “The six professors on the evaluation committee had previously negotiated with the chief professor [Lee] to pass the child by giving the first and second candidates significantly lower oral scores.”

A ministry official said: “It is a rare case in which professors participated collectively and systematically. The fact that Yonsei University has never received a comprehensive audit seems to be one of the reasons why the professors have done this boldly.”

The ministry said it will prosecute the professors and former vice-president Lee following a police investigation into the specific case, while the university has started disciplinary proceedings, saying they would conclude their internal investigation by September.

The prosecutors’ office has said it will investigate the entire admissions process at Yonsei, not just the case of Lee’s daughter.

The former vice-president and the six professors have denied they were ordered to admit Lee’s daughter.

In another case in the audit report, a professor in charge of accounting in 2017 gave a top grade to her daughter who attended her classes at Yonsei. The report alleged the professor wrote the correct answers in tests taken by her daughter.

Though not the purpose of the general audit, opposition politicians also hoped it would shed light on the Cho family case, in particular documents related to an internship allegedly undertaken by Cho’s son at Seoul National University and said to have been submitted as part of his application to Yonsei University in 2017 or 2018. Seoul National University said last year that documents relating to Cho’s son’s admission were no longer available.

However, documents were found by the audit to have been deleted, including those relating to Yonsei’s 2018 admissions, despite laws under the Public Records Management Act that data must be preserved for four years.

This article was modified on 23 July to clarify that the Yonsei University audit was not related to the Cho Kuk case and was instigated by the ministry well before Cho’s resignation.