Graduate Schools: A Blind Spot for Human Rights

김강산, 박해지, 이상현, 장은재l승인2016.11.01l수정2016.11.04 01:35l350호 1면

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▲ Graduates held press interview in front of the National Assembly building, requiring the elevation of their legal status on Oct. 11 2014.

 Last year, it was revealed that a graduate school professor had been abusing his student for 5 months from June to November, 2014. The victim reported being forced to eat excrement, hit and pepper sprayed. It was truly shocking news for people, but soon other cases of human rights abuse in graduate schools were brought to light. While cases like these received a lot of attention at the time, nothing seems to have come of it as the problems of human rights abuses in graduate schools remain.

 A 2014 youth committee conducted a survey about the study environment in Korea’s graduate schools. With help of the graduate school student unions of 13 major universities, 2,354 students were asked whether or not they experienced unfair treatment in their programs. 45.5% answered yes, and 65.3% of them reported enduring serious incidences of human rights violations, but chose not to report it. The survey was divided into 4 sections, violations of human dignity, forced behavior, forced or limited study directions, and credit recognition. When it came to violations of human dignity, 31.8% of respondents reported incidences of sexual assault, harassment, physical and verbal abuse as well as ridiculing. In the second part of the survey, 25.8% of respondents reported being forced to do unfair tasks, being asked to put their health at risk, and incidences of privacy invasion. In the third section, 20.2% of respondents said their professor discriminated against their use of facilities and often times forced them to choose specific research issues or work with designated tutors. Finally, 9.5% of respondents reported having their names excluded or demoted from research they had either authored or co-authored.

▲ A book cover of the web-comic, ‘Sad Portraits of Graduate Students’, was published by Korea University’s graduate student council.

 Recently, an effort to help change the plight of graduate students was launched by Korea University’s graduate school student council.  In November 2015, they began publishing the web-comic Sad Portraits of Graduate Students’. Based on real life experiences, the cartoon quickly earned popularity with graduate students who said they found comfort in reading it, seeing they were not alone. The webtoon quickly spread around the country raising awareness in the situation these young academics face.

 The Dankook Herald (DKH) interviewed Lee Eun-jung (Anonymous, 27) who studied a master’s degree at Seoul National University. The DKH asked whether or not she had experienced any unfair treatment while attending the graduate school. She said that most graduates were required to take part in the personal events of their academic advisors or professors, such as family funerals. Also, she pointed out that many graduates are paid too little for the amount of work they are required to do while studying. They are in the laboratory all day long, weekdays to weekend, until the end of their project. “I heard the average minimum wage for graduates is 600,000 won per month. While working in a laboratory is beneficial for their studies, students are required to spend too much time there. As a result, the time they have to work, it is too little,” she added.

 Moreover, she pointed out, the tasks they are required to perform are not clear. They work on a project as well as complete some administrative work in the lab and often times they have to deal with the personal business of their academic advisor. “This didn’t help me concentrate on my study or the project,” she explained. Also Ms. Lee said that she was sexually discriminated against in graduate school. She was a student in the natural science graduate school where there were many opportunities to join fieldwork, but the jobs were considered physically demanding. As a result, the academic advisor only offered the opportunities to male students and never asked female students, including her, whether or not they thought they were capable of taking it on. She said, “This limited opportunity couldn’t help but have an effect on my dissertation choice and subject.”

 “While unfair treatment is rampant in graduate school, no one struggles with the situation. There is almost 100% compliance when attending the personal events of an academic advisor, even if the professor only suggests you take part. The students feel compelled to attend no matter what,” she said. The DKH asked her why she thought this was the case. She explained that a professor (or an academic advisor) has a strong influence on whether or not you get your degree and what study direction you will take, so students try to keep the professor happy.

 Ms. Lee also shared some of her more terrible experiences at graduate school. Normally graduate students start preparing the dissertation during the third semester, but she did not get much guidance in this area. When she finally started preparing her dissertation, in May 2015, she became the victim of sexual harassment from her academic advisor. She reported him to the Human Rights Center (HRC) on campus and he resigned a month later. After the reporting, she learned just how remarkable this result was. Many students had reported sexual harassment by professors, but their cases hadn’t resulted in any penalty or disciplinary action against their offenders. “Of course, the HRC wants these attackers to be punished for their actions, but if they do, the lab suffers from the bad publicity.” As a result, Ms. Lee had to force the matter to get them to address the issue, when they would have otherwise, swept it under the mat. “The problem was not only my own, but also all around the graduate school. It was reasonable for me to react, the way I did” she said.

 In reality, the biggest problem is the proportion of students who said they do not report any violations of their rights. 101 of 159 students said they would not file any complaints because a whopping 24% believed it would not lead to any change, and 22% thought they would be unfairly discriminated against for raising the matter, by their seniors and professors. 21% believed it may even serve as a strike or drawback against their future careers or with their programs. Finally, 18% of them answered about their relationship with members of the graduate school and 11% surprisingly they thought is a thing that happens publicly.

 It is clear that many graduate students are not well treated or even protected by their universities. This problem is not limited to Korea. Other countries have also had their fair share of student harassment cases, and were forced to take strong measures to deal with them. In the U.S.A, some states allowed graduate students to form labor unions, but the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) at first, failed to recognize them saying the relationship between professors and students is educational, not commercial. However, in 2016, the NLRB admitted the student unions for the first time, conceding finally that they represented a type of employment relationship.

 In Korea, some universities have a HRC, but not all. In addition, attempts to draw up a Bill of Rights for Korean graduate students have consistently been derailed, over the last three years, by the Ministry of Education. They argue that there is no single standard that could be applied to all majors and the individual operating methods of each university. As a result, establishing Bills of Rights became optional and most universities opted to postpone their plans. It also led to each university autonomously deciding whether or not to create a HRC and execute punishment where warranted.

 Human rights are not optional. By definition they are inalienable rights and as a result, we need to provide a more suitable environment for graduate students to plan their future. Also, professors and academic advisors who fail to respect a student’s right, should be forced to understand the consequences of their behavior regardless of whether or not punishment is imposed. As long as society remains a wasteland for human rights, graduate schools and university communities must take the lead and push themselves to handle these problems.


김강산, 박해지, 이상현, 장은재  dankookherald@gmail.com
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