On February 5th, Sungkyunkwan University (SKKU) announced that it will stop employing graduate student teaching assistants (TA) for administrative work, firing about 70 TAs who had been working in over the previous few months. The school argues that they have decided to take such a stance to reduce the exorbitant amount of work the TAs already have to do. However, the TAs are strongly opposing the school’s decision, arguing that SKKU unilaterally violated their contracts without any discussion with the students.
Similar cases of gapjil have continuously decorated numerous pages on national newspapers. After repeated incidents of physical and mental abuse of graduate students by professors nationwide, Korean society is finally sensing the severity of gapjil towards TAs. Both institutional and legal change are urgently required to protect South Korea’s future.
In most cases, a TA’s workload is decided by their professors without any labor contracts. TAs have to write exam questions, grade tests and sometimes are even forced to take care of menial tasks for their professors, such as fetching water or changing the lights in the office. People say half jokingly that TAs are basically free private secretaries for professors. However, considering the amount of work they have to do, the money they receive is unrealistically meager. Even though the treatment graduate students receive from the school is clearly unfair, the strictly vertical hierarchy between the professors and the students has meant that they have been unable to directly combat this injustice.
The vertical hierarchy mostly derives from the professor's total control over the TAs’ degree. If a professor does not like a student, they can refuse to allow that student to receive their graduate degree. Graduate degrees are critical to the students’ future, considering the time, effort, and money they put into graduate school. Therefore, the students have no choice but to obey their orders. The professor, on the other hand, has the absolute power and can thus very easily take advantage of the students. Until now, legal and institutional protection for the students has been almost non-existent.
To stop the abuse of the TA system, it is most important to change the unfair power relationship. A relatively horizontal relationship can be achieved through legal and institutional protection for the students. A means for this arose on February 24 in the form of the first graduate student labor union. It is now the union’s job to actively publicize any exploitation of labor. Along with the labor union, more groups or non-profit organizations that specialize in the protection of graduate students are necessary. These organizations and the media should then work together to publicize the abuse of power that exists in universities.
For legal protection, labor contracts between TAs and their school are necessary along with a system that can monitor universities for human rights abuses in school. Furthermore, as the title “professor” carries the responsibility to teach and encourage students to improve, any faculty member that demonstrates inappropriate behavior should be strictly punished. In the past, numerous professors have been able to return to the podium with only light punishment after abusing their power. The lenient consequences have utterly failed to prevent professors from exploiting their students. Strict responses to and the active disclosure of violations of graduate student rights are more than necessary.
Because of such problem, many graduate students are moving overseas to receive their degree. They all shake their heads when questioned about their research environment. It is an irony and a tragedy that students have to suffer from abusive behavior of their professors when they had registered for graduate school to receive professional education from a professional educator. Maybe Korea should focus more on protecting graduate student rights rather than investing more money in technological development.