[VIEWPOINT]The Ph.D. serfs scrounge for jobsUntenured university and college instructors have three dilemmas to face.
The first is that they have no income during school vacations, so they have to forego further studies and find a part-time job to substitute for their part-time college job.
Second, they run the risk of becoming confused about just what their academic specialty is, because they have to teach whatever courses the school assigns them to.
The third dilemma is that if they are not given permanent positions, they have to pack their books and move on to another school or another line of work. So they are popularly known as “peddlers,” according to a Web site for a temporary instructors union.
The question of these academic peddlers has come to the fore of public attention again, after an untenured instructor at Seoul National University committed suicide, leaving a note saying that he saw himself as “a man in a box.”
Some tenured professors are saying they themselves are complicit in the problem because they have been indifferent to it. A group of them is taking turns staging one-man demonstrations in front of government buildings to urge the government to do something. But there are less charitable voices as well: Some say these instructors chose their way of life even knowing of the poor treatment they would get. “Why should society take the responsibility for their economic condition?” they ask. “If they don’t like the job, they can find a different one.”
The issue of the treatment of these college teachers is not a new one. There are about 50,000 untenured college-level instructors around the nation; that number is about 10,000 more than the number of tenured university and college faculty. The untenured instructors teach about half of the total number of classes offered by colleges here. But they are classified as “daily workers,” not “educators,” and their salaries are only about a tenth of the earnings of a tenured professor. Nor do they benefit from the four insurance programs ― including health insurance ― that other educators receive. This highly unequal treatment persists even though they account for 40 percent of all instructors at tertiary education institutions.
Pointing out that grim reality, one professor said, “Just as foreign workers dominate the ‘3-D’ industries” ― he was referring to dirty, dangerous and difficult jobs ― “that are the bases of our economy, untenured instructors support cheap college education.”
Will this group turn out to be the next generation of Korea’s senior scholars? The untenured teachers don’t think so. In a recent survey, 70 percent doubted that they would ever get tenure anywhere. Half of all respondents said the probability was low; another 21 percent said they had almost no chance and only about 6 percent said they were highly likely to get an appointment eventually. Low self-esteem leads to self-scorn; I got a taste of miserable their living conditions must be when I read some of the comments on that union Web site in which the authors called themselves “the ghosts who starve to death at the end of the semester.” Others said they were “the last slaves of this era,” and one commented, “Untenured instructors have not been among the living since a long time ago.”
The union recently appealed to the National Human Rights Commission, saying the two-tier system was an infringement of their human rights; they said that the failure to classify them as educators under the law deprived them of the status their social position should have brought them. I wonder how the commission will deal with this appeal from disposable intellectuals?
An improvement in the working conditions and legal status of untenured instructors is one of the campaign pledges of the Roh Moo-hyun administration, but there has been little progress in making good on that pledge. Like past administrations, the Roh administration says that it lacks money. But the problem cannot wait, because it will take a long time to solve. At least some interim steps should be taken; a legal status of college faculty could be a starting point. They should also be offered entry into their school’s health plan.
With the beginning of summer vacation, part-time instructors are again reduced to idleness. Shouldn’t the government give them some expectations for a better future?
* The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Han Cheon-soo