Student councils suffer a crisis of leadership

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Student councils suffer a crisis of leadership

Long gone are the days when college students were eager to plumb the known depths of the world. Graduation has become but a line on a resume to help secure a job, and the belittlement of universities as training academies has taken a toll on university student councils.

Not only do students focus solely on their resumes, the tight surveillance of councils via social media has discouraged people from stepping up to take charge.

Last year, more than 10 universities in Seoul failed to elect a president for this year’s school councils, either because turnout was too low, as most universities require over 50 percent of registered students to take part in the voting for it to be valid, or because the students had no candidates to vote for in the first place.

A student council is formed with the inauguration of a president. Without one, no council can be formed.

One such example is Yonsei University. For the first time in 55 years since the prestigious school elected its first student council leaders in 1961, student affairs will be run by an emergency planning committee without an elected president or council body.

The vacancy of the school council for this year was confirmed as early as Nov. 9, when the school’s election for student councils began but no one ran for the office of student council president.

“The overall awareness of the student community has weakened, mostly because it’s become so competitive for everyone [after graduation]. Every need is linked to one’s way of life,” said Yoo Sang-bin, former vice president of the 2016 student council at Yonsei University, and currently head of the emergency committee.

Yoo was elected as the interim leader by other newly elected presidents from separate colleges within Yonsei.

Yoo explained another hardship for student councils. Whereas student council fees had originally been part of tuition until 2013, the school separated the fees so the students could choose whether or not to pay the council’s budget.

“In the past two years,” Yoo said, “only 25 percent of students paid the student council fees. It’s a challenge to work on such a small budget.”

Sookmyung Women’s University and the University of Seoul have faced the absence of a student council twice in a row.

Student affairs of both schools were run by emergency councils last year and will do so this year, as well.

As was the case for Yonsei University, no one was willing to devote themselves to a year of “slavery,” as many students refer to the task.

“Students are becoming indifferent to school affairs because they’re focused on their future careers,” said Kim Sung-eun, who led the emergency council for Sookmyung Women’s University last year. “I was able to act as head of the emergency council because I am not looking for a job at the moment, and I’m taking the time to explore more possibilities. For those who need a job right after, student council activities are definitely demanding.”

Other universities without an elected president as of December 2016 include Seoul Women’s University, Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, Dongguk University and Sogang University, some of which will hold a by-election in March to fill the vacancies.

Even with candidates running for single-year presidencies, the number of votes did not meet standards. For 13 straight years, including 2016, Seoul National University had to prolong voting days to fulfill the required number.

In 2012, the school had to put off voting from November until March 2013 because only about 28 percent of students had voted by the deadline.

As is the case for most official votes, more than half the registered students, besides those on leave, need to cast ballots so that the election results may carry democratic legitimacy.

The biggest cause of indifference is the unemployment crisis and the hellish competition among students over a job after graduation. According to Statistics Korea, the employment rate for four-year university graduates was 55.6 in 2013 and 64.5 in 2014, or just over a half. The number for last year’s graduates has not been revealed, and this year’s graduates are still looking.

But the increase is not necessarily good news. Even if the employment rate goes up, it doesn’t mean things are getting easier for students to find employment.

Most students do not finish their eight semesters consecutively, but rather postpone graduation until they actually get a job.

This means taking leave and having to complete additional semesters to fill their resumes, and retaking courses to improve poor grades. Among the number that went up, not many would have finished their education in just four years.

Another factor as to why no one wishes to run for student council president is the other students who continually monitor the student council.

The most visible case involved Seoul National University, whose newly elected student president, Lee Tak-gyu, was suspended from office on Dec. 13 for insulting a female student’s physical appearance while he was hosting a school event.

Lee has since posted a letter of apology on his Facebook account, and the student council has elected a special committee to look into and deal with the case.

His dismissal has caused others to shy away from the position for fear that mistakes in their past may also be brought to light.

“The indifference towards the student council is similar to that of the government,” said Park Hye-su, former president of the student council at Yonsei University. “Because the council does many things, students lose track of it all. Whereas they are oblivious as to the council’s works, their expectations of the outcome and ethical standards remain high. It’s difficult to come forward in such an atmosphere.”

Just as the case was for Lee from Seoul National University, social media has become a strict form of surveillance for the councils.

“But student councils are necessary,” said Park. “Without them, things like tuition, student welfare, orientation, school fairs and the school policies would all be left to the school and not the students. I hope, not just for the student council but for the principle of the matter, that people will pay attention to our community and not just the lines on their resume.”

BY YOON SO-YEON [yoon.soyeon@joongang.co.kr]

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