China bans supervisors from treating students as ‘cheap labour’

Students and academics doubt government directive will shift long-standing power dynamic

October 13, 2020
China, sweatshop manager standing watching workers
Source: Alamy

China has banned supervisors from treating postgraduate students as “cheap labour” for tasks irrelevant to their studies, but doubts have been expressed about whether the edict will significantly change the country’s research culture.

A directive issued by the Ministry of Education asks supervisors to adhere to a previous guideline for university lecturers and “not to assign postgraduate students to affairs unrelated to studying, research and social services”.

Ge Daokai, the education superintendent of Jiangsu province, described such requests as “an abuse of power by supervisors” at a ministry press conference last month, during which an upcoming code of conduct specifically for postgraduate supervisors was mentioned.

According to local media, the draft proposal requires supervisors “not to treat students as cheap labour”. Other misconduct listed in the document includes the use of abusive language, “wilfully creating barriers to postpone students’ graduation” and not giving students authorship credit for their contributions.

“Students are here for studying instead of any other purposes. There should be no doubts about this,” Li Kelang, head of the Centre of Postgraduate Education and Development at Shenzhen University, told Times Higher Education. “But I’m afraid it is difficult to implement.”

The country’s traditional reverence for professors was part of the problem, Mr Li acknowledged. “Supervisors are expected to be close with their students so that they can teach students in accordance with their aptitude,” he added. “However, in a close relationship, it is hard to draw a clear line on many things.”

Many students, too, were sceptical that the policy would be a game-changer. Liu Ruipeng, a PhD student at Delft University of Technology who completed a master’s degree in China, said the most common non-academic demands imposed on postgraduates related to “supporting daily routines in the lab or research project teams”.

Tasks such as looking after facilities and purchases, and getting documents stamped at different offices, were difficult to define and could be time-consuming, Mr Liu added. “It seems to me that the policy is not very practical. This has been common for a long while, and it is difficult to stop the inertia immediately,” he said.

Some reports have indicated that many Chinese postgraduates, especially in the sciences, in essence work as secretaries for their supervisors. In extreme cases, it has been suggested that overbearing pressure from supervisors has driven some students to suicide.

The power imbalance in the student-supervisor relationship meant that it was “simply unwise to offend the person who can decide whether you are able to graduate or not”, Mr Liu said.

The Ministry of Education has released separate guidelines instructing universities to reconcile disputes between supervisors and students, and to facilitate the reassignment of supervisors “if necessary”. Mr Li said that such a system was already in place at his university, and that it was “often used as the last resort”.

Shenzhen was one of the first institutions in the country to end “supervisor tenure” by conducting annual reviews. On average, about 75 per cent to 80 per cent of doctoral supervisors pass, while at master’s level the pass rate is about 70 per cent. Lack of research resources, poor teaching quality and insufficient supervision on academic integrity are the main reasons for disqualification.

“Being a supervisor is not about time sheet or job title,” Mr Li said. “What we are asking from supervisors is just what is required to nurture postgraduate students.”

karen.liu@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Students aren’t your ‘cheap labour’ force

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