Highly educated and highly unemployableThey graduate with master’s and doctorate degrees from good universities around the world, and they return to Korea with high hopes for their academic career. After all, Korea is a country that venerates scholars and where a Ph.D. is viewed as an accomplishment.
What many of them find instead is that the work is demanding, the pay is low, the hours are long and job security is non-existent ― when they can actually find work on a part-time basis.
In the past, when enough jobs existed, the position of part-time instructors was viewed mostly as a temporary job before becoming a professor. The prolonged economic slump has changed the supply of academic jobs and altered the career path of academics, perhaps for good, as the number of doctoral graduates is on the rise, according to the National Human Rights Commission of Korea.
According to a commission study, at 135 schools surveyed, 36.9 percent of total lectures for the first semester (March to August) in 2002 were taught by part-time instructors. The commission puts the number of part-time college instructors at 39,487, with 39.7 percent of them holding doctorate degrees.
The weak finances of many schools compel them to hire part-time instructors, whose wages are low. Depending on the college, wages per hour can range from 25,000 won ($20) to 50,000 won, and their pay is based on the time they spend lecturing in the classroom, which doesn’t include grading or office hours.
For most colleges in Korea, part-time teachers are usually hired on a six-month basis.
The human rights commission found that in 2002, out of 621 part-time instructors surveyed, 84.4 percent were contracted for a six-month period while only 8.7 percent received a one-year contract.
Nothing written down
The study also found 88 percent of the surveyed instructors said they never signed a written contract.
“Some schools actually give you a contract to sign, but the majority just confirm your employment verbally. It’s the same thing when you have to quit the job,” says lecturer Ahn Jae-oh, 45, adding that getting a call from the school at the end of a semester is the most common way to find out that one no longer has a job.
“There is no advance warning. It’s just crazy. And the job hunt starts again,” says the instructor.
There are cases when part-time instructors are hired on a yearly basis, but Mr. Ahn says it rarely happens. Once the contract period is over, it’s very unlikely that the individual will get another long-term contract at the same school immediately afterward.
“Professors are always looking out for the competition, especially from the outside. They are reluctant to let an outsider establish himself by giving out long contracts. If that person is popular, then that is even more so true,” says Mr. Ahn.
After graduating from the University of Wuppertal in Germany, with a doctorate in philosophy in July 1999, Mr. Ahn started to work as a part-time instructor at colleges in the Seoul area in March 2000. Wandering from one school to another, he has taught at colleges such as Hongik University, Myongji University, Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, Seoul Digital University and Kyung Hee University.
Mr. Ahn, who is married with one child, is living in a one-room apartment of about 10 pyeong (33 square meters) on a monthly lease. When he first started lecturing, with jobs at one or two schools, he made about 500,000 won per month, not nearly enough to support his family. Relatives had to lend him money. His finances have improved since last year, when he was granted a research project at the University of Seoul that expires at the end of this year.
“This is certainly not what I had in mind when I went for my Ph.D.,” he says. “I am in debt. I can’t meet my family’s basic needs, and I won’t be able to save money my entire life if I live like this,” says the instructor.
Lecturer Lee Jeong-il, 45, feels the same insecurity. “I am always on my toes because I have to be ready to look for a job at any time,” he says.
He’s lecturing nine hours per week at two colleges in the Seoul area, has a doctorate in philosophy and has been a part-time instructor for three years. His weekly pay amounts to 360,000 won per week while his wife works also as a part-time music instructor.
“Well, I am good for this year’s summer semester. I have checked the schedule and I saw my name, so that’s good news. But after that, I just don’t know,” Mr. Lee says.
What makes it more difficult for Mr. Ahn and Mr. Lee to find a full-time job is that even though some schools advertise an opening, others don’t. Often, word of mouth is the only way to find out whether a school has a rare opening.
Alleviating part-timers’ plight
Kim Seok-soo, who is now a philosophy professor at Kyungpook National University, North Gyeongsang province, knows well the hardships of part-time instructors. He was in such a position for 10 years before he finally became a professor three years ago.
He suggests that there should be a minimum of three lectures given to part-time instructors so they can make a living wage.
“There is no law that says only six months should be given to part-time instructors. It’s just a custom that has become an unsaid rule in university circles for various reasons,” says the professor.
Mr. Kim points out that colleges need to change in order to improve part-time lecturers’ situation.
“Like regular companies, there should be a mechanism in place that no longer guarantees professors who are lacking the ability to stay in school forever,” he says.
In order to improve the conditions of temporary instructors, the Ministry of Education and Human Resources Development had planned to spend 144.2 billion won in order to raise the per-hour wage at national universities from 35,000 to 40,000 won. (Some national universities still pay below 35,000 won.)
Nevertheless, those plans have been scrapped as the Ministry of Planning and Budget cut the funding for those plans in its 2004 budget.
“We have tried to get social insurance such as medical coverage to these people, but there are voices from other government agencies saying that they are not the only part-time workers. So to sort all this out will take some time,” says Yoo Jae-suk, an official with the Ministry of Education and Human Resources.
Struggling academics might still find some relief, however. Last month, President Roh Moo-hyun announced a plan to match 1,300 unemployed holders of master’s and doctoral degrees to research jobs at universities, state-run institutions, and small- and medium-size businesses.
The stipends at universities and public institutions aren’t much: 1.2 million won per month for those with a master’s degree and 1.5 million won per month for those with a doctorate.
At the small-business research institutes, academics will fare better. Seoul will pay up to 22 million won per year for a master’s degree holder and 28 million won for a doctorate. The private firms will be asked to add an additional 30 percent.
“We will expand the budget if unemployment among the highly educated does not ease next year,” said a Blue House official at the time. “Unemployment of persons with doctorates is a big burden on society, not to mention a waste of resources.”
The help might be too late to bolster Mr. Ahn’s aspirations. Three years of constant uncertainty has hacked away at his hopes of ever getting a stable job.
“To be honest, I have given up on that a long time ago. I mean, look at me,” he says. “I call myself lucky when I get a 50,000-won lecture. It’s just not going to happen.”
by Brian Lee