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    Parents vs. Privacy: Students Debate Universities Sharing Transcripts

    The controversial practice of sending academic records to parents is part of efforts by Chinese universities to improve the supervision of undergraduates, say industry insiders.
    May 29, 2024#education#privacy

    In January, Wang Kemeng, a rising junior student at the China University of Petroleum in Beijing, learned that her mother had received a surprise package in the mail. Inside were the transcripts of every student in Wang’s year, along with a letter from the university encouraging parents to pay more attention to their child’s education.

    The same thing happened to a senior student of electrical engineering at another Chinese university, only his parents mistook the number of credits he’d received for each course as exam scores, causing them to become anxious. He had to travel home from school at the weekend to explain the data.

    Academic counselors at some universities even share exam results and class rankings at the end of each semester in chat groups created for parents on the WeChat messaging platform.

    Some colleges and universities in China have been in the habit of sharing their students’ transcripts with parents for about 10 years, providing a full account of their academic progress. Yet the practice ignited heated debate in early April when students at Zhejiang University, one of the country’s most prestigious universities, learned that it had mailed out theirs without warning.

    Students generally felt it was a violation of their privacy and complained that they were being treated more like children than young adults. Parents, on the other hand, had mixed views, with many expressing that they have a right to know their child’s grades because they are the ones paying the tuition fees.

    The practice suggests that university leaders see students as unable to manage their own lives and in need of close supervision. But where are the boundaries?

    “Mailing transcripts to parents seems like a small matter, but it’s part of a wider issue,” says Wang Chenfeng, an academic counselor at a university in the central Hubei province. He explains that universities are under great pressure: When extreme incidents occur, such as a student’s death, a professor — or even the entire faculty — could face punishment.

    For example, a student at his school who had to repeat a year because of poor grades refused to let her professors inform her parents of the situation. She later committed suicide, with many suspecting that her academic performance was a contributing factor.

    Sharing transcripts with parents is a kind of “stability maintenance,” Wang says. Although the practice may sacrifice the interests of some individuals, as well as potentially cause conflict among family members, he believes it could help prevent more severe incidents by keeping parents informed, allowing them to supervise their child’s studies.

    It’s generally thought in China that, after the intensity of high school, students look forward to relaxing once they get to university. As a result, some end up failing, and in recent years several universities have reported an increasing number of undergraduates who had to transfer to vocational programs after flunking too many classes.

    In 2018, Wu Yan, then director of the higher education department at the Ministry of Education, said: “We should not have ‘insane’ high schools, nor can we have ‘happy’ universities. In universities today, some students are living in dream-like confusion — this is unacceptable. It’s inevitable that the expulsion rate of undergraduates will be moderately increased.”

    Mother of a student at Zhejiang University, who wished to remain anonymous, says she’s concerned about how many students are expelled each year for failing too many courses. She fully supports sharing students’ transcripts with parents. “Today’s kids are different from past generations because they are supervised their entire lives. Suddenly letting go of them when they are in university might cause problems,” she says.

    However, Yuan Jing, whose son attends the same university, argued that grades should be considered private and confidential. She says she was surprised to receive her son’s academic record in the mail, adding that if her child doesn’t mention an exam result, she doesn’t ask about it. “The fact that parents pay the tuition fees does not mean they should challenge their child’s privacy. I also buy my son’s clothes. If he needs to take his clothes off because I demand it, does he have any dignity left?”

    Yuan says she trusts her son. When he was a freshman, she gave him enough money to cover tuition and living expenses for four years, making it clear there would be no additional funds. She hopes her child will learn how to budget, which she considers as important as academic knowledge.

    Not an adult, not a child

    The universities’ actions may be well-intentioned, but anecdotal evidence suggests the practice of releasing transcripts places a significant burden on some students.

    A young woman who graduated over a year ago recalls that, when she learned that her transcripts would be sent to her parents, her first reaction was fear. Being bad at math, she had failed calculus in her freshman year. In her sophomore year, the school suddenly announced that transcripts would be mailed to parents. She expected her family would be unhappy about her academic performance. “It wouldn’t change the situation, and I would get scolded,” she says. So, she asked the class representative responsible for mailing the records to change the address on hers. To this day, her parents are unaware she ever failed a class.

    Wang Kemeng at the China University of Petroleum was not upset about her school sending out her transcript, as her parents do not pressure her, but she still feels it’s strange. “Even though I’ll soon have to find a job and support myself, I’m still subject to my parents looking at my grades,” she says. “In one fell swoop, I’m back to life at high school. It’s very disconcerting … I’m neither fully an adult nor a child.”

    Li Jingwen, a student in the southern Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region who will graduate this summer, describes feeling like a “high school student who just went through higher education.”

    When she first entered university, an academic counselor provided a QR code for a WeChat group for all parents of students in her year. The counselor would use this group to regularly update them on exam results, course content, awards, holidays, and more.

    Li says her parents’ constant attention and interference added a lot of pressure. They disapproved of her dating while in university or “wearing skirts that were too short or any revealing clothes,” and gave her a curfew. Her father would call to check on her as soon as the clock struck 10 o’clock at night. During breaks, if she stayed overnight outside campus, the university required that her parents be notified and that she sign a “safety commitment” that essentially freed the school of any liability.

    Chen Jin, a student at Shanghai’s Fudan University who enjoys a harmonious relationship with his parents, already shares his grades and has video calls with his mother almost on a daily basis. However, he often struggles with “how to balance being my true self and being a child.”

    He says his mother regularly checks his account on the school’s intranet — “whether she asked me for my login or I gave it to her voluntarily, I can’t remember” — which shows his course schedule, scores, assignment grades, rankings, and even every transaction made on his campus card. While Chen doesn’t mind, he sometimes feels she worries too much about him. “I hope she can spend more energy on herself,” he says.

    Close supervision

    Sending transcripts to parents is just one of the many tools Chinese universities use to manage their students. However, Lin Huiying, who has worked as a counselor at a top-tier university for over a decade, believes that sharing academic records is an example of “excessive management.”

    “Universities should not be like middle schools and high schools, where if a child’s discipline is poor, the automatic response is to contact the parents,” she says. “Once they enter society, if they are always late for work or leaving early, are their companies going to contact their parents?” In her opinion, university students should be encouraged to mature independently.

    Lin’s school has mailed transcripts to students’ parents two or three times, creating a huge workload for her. According to regulations, universities should have no fewer than one counselor for every 200 students. In reality, she’s responsible for 400 to 500.

    In the past two years, under new leadership, the school has stopped mailing out transcripts. However, other tedious tasks have piled up. Lin says that counselors are now required to notify parents before students leave campus and then call to confirm they arrived home safely. She emphasizes, “It has to be a phone call, not a text message.”

    Zhang Lei, a counselor who has worked at a vocational college in the eastern Anhui province for 11 years, says his school does not currently mail transcripts to parents, but it did start creating group chats for them this year. From an educational perspective, he disapproves, saying, “You are treating university students like primary school students, which is detrimental to their development.” However, as it’s a mandatory school requirement, he has to comply, so he is constantly sending updates in the group to prevent parents from “causing unnecessary misunderstandings that could challenge the school’s safety and stability.”

    Now, Zhang must have a recorded conversation with each student every month, with the chat records uploaded for the administration to view. In addition, he must carry out no fewer than 10 dormitory inspections and have five meals with students. Counselors who fail to meet these targets will have their performance-related pay deducted.

    Li Jingwen, who will graduate this summer, summed up her views on university life like this: “The knowledge we learn should be specialized, and different viewpoints should be accommodated. We should have more free time to develop our skills and interests. A good university should not be an isolated island surrounded by walls.”

    Reported by Liang Ting, He Xinxin, Qiao Yumeng, and Li Taofei.

    (Due to privacy concerns, all interviewees have been given pseudonyms.)

    A version of this article originally appeared in Beijing Youth Daily. It has been translated and edited for brevity and clarity, and is republished here with permission.

    Translator: Vincent Chow; editors: Xue Ni and Hao Qibao.

    (Header image: Visuals from VCG, reedited by Sixth Tone)