Defend South Korean students struggle against Seoul National University’s corporatization
Students in Seoul National University (SNU), South Korea, have been occupying SNU’s main building for over 100 days since October 10, 2016, against a plan to build a campus extension in the city of Siheung.
SNU is a national university regarded as the most elite institution of higher education in Korea. Although a public university, SNU has been run more and more on the principle of profitability ever since its transition to a corporate entity in 2011. Such degradation on the part of an institution considered to be South Korea’s ‘top university’ is in fact representative of the (neoliberal) state of Korean higher education in general.
All of this has been fueled by South Korean president Park Geun-hye’s relentless push for neoliberal restructuring of higher education, but now Park is on the verge of impeachment as the result of a popular revolt against her undemocratic, iron-fisted rule. Seong Nak-in, who had been appointed president of SNU with Park’s support, has been no less undemocratic in running the university.
The Siheung campus plan is part of a speculative property development project associated with Siheung City’s urban expansion. The university has partnered with local politicians and construction firms to participate in a KRW 1.8 trillion (approx. USD 1.6 billion) project. Huge sums of money have been exchanged in the process. In essence, SNU is leveraging its brand name to grow its physical assets on the cheap.
To this end democratic procedures were simply ignored. The SNU administration did the utmost to keep the Siheung campus plan a secret from students and staff, until SNU president Seong Nak-in, swiftly and without warning, signed an implementation agreement for the new campus behind closed doors.
The plan involves building dormitories in Siheung, located hours away from Seoul, and sending thousands of students from Seoul to populate the new campus. Moreover, the cost of building and maintaining a new, 160-acre campus will in all likelihood be borne by students and staff in the form of increased tuition and poorer working conditions.
The SNU administration claims it can sustain the new campus financially by strengthening ties with industry and through commercial ventures, but this would only tighten the grip of the profit motive over education and research. All this goes to show how the new Siheung campus would magnify the harmful effects of neoliberal policies pursued by universities. The sit-in by SNU students is thus part of the wider struggle to halt neoliberal restructuring of higher education.
The SNU administration is threatening 29 of the students participating in the occupation with disciplinary action including ‘permanent expulsion’ which completely deletes their school records and deprives any possibility of future re-admittance. The administration has also cut off power, heating, and water in the main building while the weather is now as cold as -10 oC (14 in fahrenheit).
The students of SNU, however, are engaged in a just struggle to stop a neoliberal policy that puts profits before their education. Occupying students have spoken at the mass weekend protest demanding Presidential resignation and called for wider solidarity. Many Koreans are responding to their call including the leader MP of Justice Party. Campaign for international solidarity is also taking place.
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