Rights fears over spread of cameras in lecture halls

The use of surveillance cameras in university classrooms is spreading in China with students expressing concerns over lack of privacy, and lawyers saying they could violate the constitutional rights of university teachers.

Concerns over privacy were raised in social media posts monitored last week when Guangdong province’s prestigious Sun Yat-sen University began installing surveillance cameras in lecture theatres on at least one of its four campuses in the province, saying it would improve “the quality of teaching”.

According to a document from the university’s vice-chancellor’s office quoted by the Beijing News, the aim is to “refine a teaching monitoring mechanism”, and to “deepen education reform and improve the quality of talent training”.

Some university officials claimed the cameras would only be focused on teachers, not students and would be recording only during teaching hours at the request of teachers or more senior officials at the university or education departments, according to the reports.

But students at the university have been complaining on social media in recent days of an invasion of privacy.

Classroom surveillance is becoming more common although university academics say in Guangdong province, as in most provinces, there is no top-level decree ordering such monitoring, as was the case in the Southwestern province of Guizhou some years ago.


Surveillance of examination halls has become common, but closed-circuit television cameras to monitor “teaching standards” were rolled out in universities across Guizhou province after a document was sent to universities late last year requiring them in all classrooms “to build an all-round oversight system for teaching quality control”.

According to business journal Caixin, four lawyers wrote to the provincial education authority about the document, demanding to know the legal basis for “spying on teachers”. They also suggested that the cameras “violated the constitutional right” of teachers' freedom to run their classes.

Wang Xu, an associate professor at Renmin University of China, Beijing, was quoted as saying the real purpose was to monitor professors rather than appraise teaching quality.

As early as 2013, Beijing's China University of Political Science and Law installed cameras in classrooms and lecture theatres. The university’s officials said it was to prevent cheating, but law academics at the institution believed it was to monitor possible criticism of the country’s regime and policies.

Law professors also feared it was aimed at gathering “evidence” of non-compliance with the regime’s ideological crackdown on a number of taboo topics and Communist Party calls on university teachers to stick to the approved party line in their teaching. In particular any discussion of constitutional reform is a sensitive issue.


Controversially, Wuchang University of Technology in Wuhan, Hubei province, a private institution, installed surveillance cameras not only in classrooms and laboratories but also in dormitories last year in what was called “seamless coverage” to “improve” staff and student behaviour, according to official media reports, including People’s Daily.

Women students, in particular, were incensed at the move.

According to a report in June in the Communist Party organ, the People’s Daily, 100 faculty members and staff took turns to view the live footage.

Rolling out the system was accompanied by a declaration by the university administration that teachers arriving late for class or leaving early, or students idling, chatting, eating or sleeping during class would face undisclosed “punishment”.

Official media carried quotes from professors and students saying that the surveillance had created “a more disciplined teaching and learning environment”.