Monday, 19 March 2012

MoE Announce Tougher Enforcement of Masters Student Application System - Predicting the Impact on Sino-Foreign programmes

The PRC Ministry of Education has announced that the admissions system for Masters courses will be subject to very strict enforcement this year, calling on local education bureaus, admissions units to strengthen their administration of enrolment and assessment of prospective Masters students.

The announcement highlights the importance which the MoE attach to maintaining the integrity of applications, with irregularities being investigated by the MoE and, in severe cases where conspiracy is evident, by the Public Security Bureau. The MoE clearly states that coordinated attempts to influence the admissions process involving local officials constitutes a criminal act and will be dealt with accordingly.

Original Link (Chinese only)

Such regulations exist for specific reasons. Firstly, and most obviously, these regulations exist to ensure fairness in the application system.

Secondly, and perhaps not as well known, is the issue of degrees in China being conferred by the MoE. This is a centrally controlled system of issuing and conferring degrees which fights academic fraud and also ensures that universities comply with various laws and regulations covering Chinese HE.

Masters candidates in China can only apply for a Masters course which appears on an approved list. In order to apply they must have taken the Masters Admissions Test referred to above. Consequently, prospective students can be sure that the Masters programme to which they are applying has been approved (Masters degree awarding status of a university must be given by the State Council - the PRC Cabinet), and, upon graduation, they will be issued with (a) their degree certificate from the awarding institution, and (b) the conferral from the Ministry of Education. This is the case with both UG and PG degrees in China.

It is important here to note that the conferral from the MoE is as important, if not more so, than the degree itself. Without the conferral, students will be unable to apply for jobs in China in state-owned companies, government departments, banks, universities, schools, hospitals and, increasingly, privately-owned and multi-national corporations operating in China. Also, no MoE conferral means the degree is not recognised as a legitimate academic qualification and any subsequent qualifications earned, such as a PhD, will thus also be declared invalid. This is a system which exists to make it near impossible for false or forged academic degree certificates to help secure employment or acceptance on a higher education course.

The system of centrally conferring degrees through the MoE is also extended, via the Chinese Embassies around the world, to foreign-educated Chinese citizens. For example, say a student decides to go to the UK to study, he/she must, upon completion of their degree, have the degree certificate validated and notarized by the Chinese Embassy or Consular Office in the UK. Then, upon return to China, the student will be added to the centrally-held list of graduates and have their degree conferred through the MoE, thus enabling the student to apply for a job (or further degree at a Chinese university).

Another consideration is for those students enrolled on a cooperative degree programme. These take many forms, but are essentially degree programmes taught entirely in China or partially in China and partially in a foreign country, and which offer a foreign degree or both a foreign and Chinese degree to graduating students. All 2+2 undergraduate programmes fall under this category, as do 1+1 Masters programmes and all programmes taught at Sino-Foreign JV universities. In this case, however, the degree must be approved by the Ministry of Education. Say, for example, an "under-the-radar" 2+2 UG programme recruits students. The student completes 2 years at the Chinese partner university. Then goes to the UK to complete the final 2 years. Upon graduation, the Chinese Embassy or consular office will refuse to validate and notarise a degree certificate obtained through a 2+2 programme unless that 2+2 programme has been specifically approved and licensed by the MoE.

This latest announcement from the MoE implies that all Masters courses in China will be subject to increased controls on admissions standards. Thus, any Masters programme launched in China, taught fully or partially in China, must be fully approved and taught at a university licensed by the MoE to offer Masters level degrees. Otherwise, students will be unable to apply. Any students enrolled outside the official application system (i.e. illegally) on "under-the-radar" Masters programmes will be unable to get the MoE conferral of their degree.

I am aware of several situations in China where cooperative UG/Masters degree programmes have been established outside the regulatory framework. I fully expect this to become a major issue for those institutions engaged in this practice next year, when those students graduate and discover their degree certificate is deemed invalid and they cannot obtain employment in China or go on to further study. This is an issue of those institutions running de facto illegal degree programmes in China which transgress either or all the 1995 HE Law, the 2003 Sino-Foreign JV Regulations, the 2006 Amendment to Sino-Foreign JV regulations and, perhaps most crucially, the conditions of the licence granted to those institutions to operate in China. Such instances will certainly bring a swarm of angry parents to the doors of these institutions, possible legal action and the wrath of the MoE, thus damaging both the reputation of the institution itself and the parent institutions including the foreign degree awarding institution. In most cases, only the foreign degree is being offered, thus making it all the more likely that the penalties and punishments for disregarding Chinese HE regulations will rest entirely with the foreign institution. It is also unlikely that the MoE will view such blatant disregard for HE regulations, whether deliberate or through ignorance, as anything other than a deliberate attempt to circumvent regulations, especially as such high fees (40k-90kRMB/£4k - £9k) are being charged.

There is also the question of morality here. As a teacher, I would find it absolutely immoral to market a programme to a student in the knowledge that it had not been officially approved. While the UK has the QAA and strong systems of checks and balances both within the university and from various external non-governmental bodies, in China this is all administered through the Ministry of Education. It is a basic and fundamental expectation that courses offered through a university in China satisfy the quality control and approval mechanisms devised by the MoE. Perhaps we will see a system of crippling fines introduced to dissuade fly-by-night courses being established, much the same as has been done in India recently. Predatory marketing of foreign universities in China, driven often by senior admin and international officers keen to reduce their reliance on recruiting international students from the open-market, is potentially very damaging to the British HE sector's reputation in China. It would perhaps be better for these universities to pay greater attention to compliance with Chinese HE regulations, rather than press ahead with marketing of programmes that have not yet been fully granted the necessary approval and licences. It would certainly be safer.


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