Jiang Huawen, a third-year grad student at Nanjing University of Posts and Telecommunications (NJUPT), leaped from the school’s teaching building in an apparent suicide on January 25.
After the 25-year-old’s death, an alleged close friend of Jiang published an article condemning Zhang Daiyuan, Jiang’s former tutor, for pushing Jiang to his death.
That article began a widespread denouncement campaign as more and more former students stood up to condemn the tutor for verbally abusing students, stealing their internship income, appropriating their university support funds and sexually harassing female students.
Jiang’s suicide was not the first, and it will most likely not be the last.
On May 18, a grad student at Central South University leaped to his death from the school library, leaving behind a 5,000-word note accusing his tutor of deliberately blocking his dissertation.
In July 2014, Wu Chunming, a professor and postgraduate tutor at Xiamen University, was revealed to be sexually harassing his female students and driving one student to self mutilation.
Tutors’ Abuse of Power
The tutor-student relationship has its roots in feudal times, when tutors represented authority, and students were obliged to obey. Total respect and obedience to teachers is considered both a virtue and a shackle on China’s students.
“I feel that tutors in Chinese universities have too much power in determining students’ studies and graduations. From the thesis opening speech to the graduation oral examination, tutors are given exclusive veto rights,” a postgraduate student who refused to be named told Jiangsu News Radio.
Xiao Yuan was a Ph.D student majoring in architecture at Xiamen University. She could not tell how many times she has been to her tutor’s office to ask for a signature on her paperwork. “Tutors can make things as difficult for you as they wish. And you have nowhere to appeal to unless you want to be expelled,” Xiao Yuan said.
“For tutors, it’s just a momentary slip whether to let you pass your graduation oral examination or not. Once you offend them, you’ll never pass. No one will help you or sympathize with you.”
At Chinese universities, tutors are responsible for postgraduate students’ studies. Even other faculty members and school leaders have no right to interfere in their interactions.
The exclusive control over students breeds room for favor trades, China Youth Net wrote.
Universities further lack any motive to supervise tutors’ behavior, making the tutor evaluation system a mere formality.
China Youth Net said universities are rated by the number of postgraduate and Ph.D candidates they can recruit. In this regard, tutors are precious human resources that the universities rely on to manage their booming recruitments.
In Zhang’s case, students frequently reported his abusive behavior to school administrators. The reply was always the same: “Just take it.”
Management of the tutor-student relationship is almost a blank space in China. There is no supervision system in the university nor channels to receive and evaluate student complaints, said Chen Gang, a social commentator to Jiangsu News Radio.
Multiple Tutor System
Instead of having one tutor to decide a grad student’s study and graduation process, the multiple tutor system used in foreign universities allows two or more tutors to guide one postgraduate students to avoid abusive use of power.
Furthermore, many Western universities have a postgraduate studies committee to assist tutors in teaching and guiding grad students.
In 2004, several top domestic universities, including Renmin University of China and Sun Yat-Sen University, launched a trial project to test the multiple tutor system. Nanjing University and Xiamen University have also implemented their own trials.
Groundbreaking.cn said many universities across China have pushed forward with the reform to some extent. Some have granted students the opportunity to rotate through laboratories during their first year and choose the best tutor. Nevertheless, the reality is that most students are expected to decide their research path and contact the tutor before even sitting the grad school exams.
In terms of the supervision and evaluation of tutors, Western universities have a comprehensive evaluation system, which assesses not only the tutors’ scientific and academic capabilities, but also his or her ideological and ethical standards and achievements in the cultivation of students.
The Guideline on the Deepening of Postgraduate Education jointly published by the Ministry of Education, the National Development and Reform Committee and the Ministry of Finance in 2013 requires universities to intensify their tutor management and evaluation process: the growing number of tutors abuses show the document has no effect in reality.
Grad students are in an inherently weak position in relation to their tutors. The uneven situation will not be changed by a piece of paper or a detailed rule. To truly repair the student-tutor relationship, universities will need to rethink academic authority and grant grad students a method to supervise their tutors, Groundbreaking.cn wrote.