Thursday, 19 November 2015

Are your China programmes what you think they are?

Editor’s Note: Several readers have emailed about concerns over unapproved programmes in China, asking for clarification on collaborations they are involved in or considering.  The relevant section of a recent post on university activity in China is reproduced here with a little added at the end.  Research into these apparently unapproved programmes is ongoing and we are pulling together more information.

During the course of extensive research into the Sino-Foreign HE landscape, its become apparent that a significant number of foreign universities, overwhelmingly from Anglophone nations including the UK, US, Canada, Australia, Ireland and New Zealand, are involved in provision of preparatory programmes which exist outside the official Sino-Foreign regulatory framework.  They are, in effect, not recognized as Sino-Foreign collaborations and this, unsurprisingly, means they pose risks to both the foreign universities and the students taking these courses.  The Daxue will, in this article, examine the implications of this for foreign universities and the students. 

What type of programmes are not approved?
Research into official Sino-Foreign collaborations identified several JEIs which run unapproved programmes alongside approved ones.  This led to further exploratory investigation which reveals a large number of colleges, or training bases (培基地), which run a range of pathway programmes designed to send students overseas for study.  These include foundation programmes, 1+3 and 2+2 arrangements which see the Chinese student transfer to a foreign university following completion of a period of study in China.  However, such programmes exist outside the Chinese HE sector and have been explicitly identified by the MoE as not permissible under the regulatory framework:

“At present, some higher education institutions, especially some key (Chinese) ones, provide so-called preparatory course of a certain foreign university of which some are actually foreign language training. As the foreign university does not take part in the teaching activities conducted within the territory of China, the Chinese party and foreign party sign a so-called agreement on mutual recognition of credits and promise that the students attending preparatory courses have opportunities to continue studying at the foreign university and may, after finishing their study, get diplomas of the university. The educational activity mentioned above is not an educational activity carried out by Chinese-foreign cooperation and is not beneficial for improving the teaching quality of higher education institutions. All higher education institutions shall put the emphasis of their work on the improvement of education quality, and no one may conduct any such educational activity, let alone in the name of Chinese-foreign cooperative school running.”
MoE Circular 14 (2007)

Foreign universities engaged in such preparatory programmes include prestigious institutions which are members of the UK’s Russell Group, 1994 Group and  Million+; Australia’s Group of Eight universities and universities from the US ranked in the US News College National Universities Top 150.  As preparatory programmes exist outside the regulatory framework, getting information on the scale of this shadow sector is difficult.  Preliminary research has identified well in excess of 30 Chinese “colleges” running preparatory courses.  Each of these colleges has a number of programmes with foreign universities.  One such college has, in the decade since its establishment, established partnerships with 18 universities in US, UK, Canada, Australia  and New Zealand, sending over 5000 students to their partner universities.  Another established in 2001 claims 21 partnerships and enrolments of 500 students. It is easy to see why this looks like a good deal for foreign universities, reducing marketing costs and bringing in good numbers of Chinese students from good Chinese universities.  Or so it would seem…

Who are the Chinese partners?
Preparatory courses, referred to as “talent training programmes (人才培养目), are offered through colleges established by Chinese universities. College names often take the name form: xxxx University International College (xxxx国学院) and in other cases are referred to as “international classes (国班)” or “study abroad bridges (留学)”.

What risks are created for the foreign partner when their foreign programme is not approved or recognized by the Chinese authorities (i.e. does not have an MOE code)?
The major risk posed is that students registered on unapproved programmes is the status of students at the Chinese university. Looking at the websites of some US, UK and Australian universities running preparatory courses, it is apparent that they believe the students they are receiving through these channels are from the Chinese universities which establish these training colleges. However, while these “colleges” are owned and operated by a Chinese university, students admitted onto preparatory courses are not admitted or enrolled as students of the Chinese university. As these preparatory programmes are not officially recognized, they cannot and are not listed as degrees which are applied to through the National University Entrance Exam, better known as the Gaokao. In addition, while Gaokao is often used as an admission criteria, requirements are set well below anything that would be constitute a Tier 1 Gaokao score in any province.  For example, one college in Guangdong requests Gaokao results of 60% as part of its admission requirements to a 2+2 preparatory course with a leading UK university.  To put this in context, 60% would be significantly below a Tier 1 Gaokao score in all Chinese regions except Ningxia, Qinghai, Xinjiang and Xizang (Tibet).  All other regions require a Gaokao score in excess of 62%. (2012 Gaokao figures). Beijing, Guizhou, Yunnan and Inner Mongolia Tier 1 scores are around 63% and above in the Gaokao.  All other provinces range from 68% to 78%.   A Tier 1 Gaokao score indicates the student has scored sufficiently well to enter a 4yr UG programme at one of 175 universities.  This includes all 117 members of Project 211, 14 former national level universities now administered at the provincial level; 40 provincial level universities, and 4 universities which are overseen by different Ministries and CCP bodies.  But its important not to conflate a Tier 1 score with a “top” score.  To get into a leading school, such as PKU, Tsinghua or Fudan, scores must be significantly higher than a Tier 1 score. 
            It is, therefore, important to understand that while Gaokao is used as a criteria for admission to preparatory programmes, it should not be mistaken for an indicator of quality. 60% on a Gaokao exam is, with the possible yet highly unlikely exception of students from a few regions, not good enough to get into any of the universities running these preparatory programmes. 

What would this look like in another country?
In the UK, British students (generally speaking) apply to university through UCAS and receive conditional offers ahead of their A level results in the August prior to admission.  Students must go through UCAS, applying to some of the 37000 courses listed by UCAS, in a similar manner to the Chinese system where Chinese students must take the Gaokao exam and apply through the National Entrance Exam to courses listed by the MoE. 
            But if we imagine a similar situation in the UK, it would read something like this.  British students with one E at A Level apply directly to a preparatory course leading to study at a reputable US university. Their application doesn’t go through UCAS and the tuition fees are substantially higher than study on a degree at any UK university.  They are then admitted to a course delivered at a training company owned by the UK university and in buildings on their campus.  However, they are not enrolled at that university and never study towards a degree at the UK university.  After two years, providing they achieve a certain standard, they can transfer to the US university to complete 2 more years of study and obtain a US degree.  Throughout, the US university believes it is getting high quality students from the UK university which owns this for-profit training company.  In addition, due to their belief that they are getting students from a top UK university, the US university places little emphasis on quality oversight and performs very little in the way of quality assurance.  In reality, they are getting students who would struggle to get into any university in the UK, but who are prepared to pay exorbitant fees well in excess of anything likely at a real university.

What about the students registered on unapproved programmes?
Chinese students who enroll on preparatory courses are not in a very good position.  Firstly, the tuition fees range from RMB50k to RMB120k for some preparatory courses, 10 to 22 times higher than standard fees for a Chinese degree.  Once they transfer to the foreign university, they must pay the foreign university international fees.  However, if they do not achieve the required results and requisite IELTS/TOEFL score within the agreed time frame, they have limited options.  The foreign university is under no obligation to take these students unless their admission requirements are fulfilled, as the Chinese students are not actually enrolled on the foreign degree while studying in China.  Moreover, the students are never registered on a Chinese degree programme and therefore cannot simply complete studies.  They are left in a form of educational limbo, without registration as a matriculating student at any university and out of pocket a significant amount of money.  They simply have to retake the year and/or resit the IELTS/TOEFL exams, or withdraw and find an alternative pathway at another so-called college. 

Due Diligence
This issue has been covered in previous posts on The Daxue.  However, with a much more comprehensive review of the officially approved Sino-Foreign sector, it has become increasingly obvious that there is a substantial and significant shadow sector which operates outside the formal HE sector.  More worryingly, it seems that foreign universities are complicit in the establishment of articulation arrangements and preparatory programmes which undermine the quality of the students they receive.

Degree Approval Process for Chinese Citizens Earning Foreign Degrees
If a Chinese student goes overseas and studies in a foreign university for their entire degree they must, upon graduation, have their degree certificate notarized by the PRC Embassy in the country where they obtained the degree.  For students who study for their degree either partially or fully in the PRC, a different process is followed as students will be unable to verify their degree certificate with an overseas PRC Embassy.  For graduates of programmes at JVs, JEIs and JEPs, they must register their degree directly with the MoE’s Sino Foreign Degree Recognition System ( ).  It is not possible to register unless (a) the student is already in the database as a matriculating student at a Sino-Foreign collaboration; (b) the JEP has a MOE approval code, or (c) the JV or JEI has an MOE approval code and the degree has been approved and recorded. 

If Sino-Foreign collaborations fail to adhere to these approval processes, a moral hazard arises whereby the cost of this decision to run unapproved degrees is more likely to be borne by the student.  The institution may also be severely reprimanded, as was the case last year with a Sino-Foreign programme in Nanjing University of Posts and Telecomms which transgressed recruitment regulations.  NUPC was banned from establishing any further Sino-Foreign operations until the end of 2015, and advised that a repeat of the violations would result in criminal prosecutions by the Public Security Bureau.  89 students were illegally admitted to a Sino-Foreign programme leading to a UK degree between 2007 and 2010.  In addition, 69 students admitted between 2009-2012 to programs leading to study in the US, UK, Canada, Holland and Malaysia were also affected.  Upon return to China, these students discovered they were unable to register their foreign degrees in China rendering their degrees effectively useless for employment in the PRC.   

How can we tell if our programme or partnership is a genuine Sino-Foreign collaboration approved by the Ministry of Education?
If your institution has a joint programme or institution in China, it will have been given an official approval code.  These codes are 18 digits long and begin with MOE.  For example, MOE33AU1A20020102O. 

You can simply google this number, which usually takes you directly a link to that record the MoE database website.  Alternatively, you can check the MoE database through a search (Chinese only).  The database can be found at:

Daxue is happy to help check for you, if you can provide the following information (in complete confidentiality by emailing us at ).
1.    MOE code
2.    Your university name.
3.    Your Chinese partner university name.
4.    The major/degree programme
5.    The province in which the programme is delivered.

On a final note, all approved degrees delivered at Joint Education Institutes are listed on their MoE record.  However, we’ve come across several instances where unapproved programmes are being run alongside approved programmes. As JEIs have an MOE code for the institution rather than each individual degree, it is important to check that your institution’s degree is listed on the JEIs approval.  Simply having an MOE code in this case is not enough. 

Mike Gow
(Until further research is conducted, it has been decided not to name any institutions, Chinese or foreign, which operate outside the regulatory framework.  However, information published publicly by both Chinese colleges and foreign universities strongly indicates that many reputable universities, especially in the UK, US, Austrlaia and Canada, are either deliberately misrepresenting the nature of these preparatory course partnerships or are simply unaware of the nature of their agreements and status of the students and colleges they are dealing with).


  1. Very good explanation! Will be quoted in in my thesis!

    Josef Goldberger

  2. I'm afraid this is incomplete and incorrect.

    Chinese universities have two options for registering dual degree programs, i.e. 2+2, 3+1. The first, which Mike Gow explains very well, is the Ministry of Education. This is an officially recognized program at the level of the central government which can be advertised to students through the Gaokao. It is a very long and difficult application process which involves the foreign university.

    The second way is through provincial or local authorities. All universities must register dual degrees or any partnership agreement with local education authorities. These dual degrees can be advertised to enrolled students only. This process is very easy and does not involve the foreign university. Typically the foreign university is less invested, too. There is no transfer of funds and no requirement for faculty to teach on the Chinese campus.

    To be sure, there are many programs which mislead students, as noted above. They enroll in a course thinking they will receive degrees from both the Chinese and foreign institutions. Students usually participate knowing they are not fully enrolled at the Chinese institution and will not receive their degree. Many use this simply as a pathway to a foreign university.

    If the foreign degree program accepts transfer credit from the Chinese institution, the danger is that the foreign degree will not be recognized in China upon completion.

    As a former China specialist at a US institution, I worked with Chinese universities to develop MoE approved programs as well as those approved at the local level.

    Tim Hathaway

  3. Many Thanks Tim. Very interesting that you bring this up, as its something else we're looking at and was deliberately excluded here, mainly due to it not being a form on TNHE or foreign university activity in China.

    As part of our ongoing research into Sino-Foreign HE, there are a number of methods by which institutions circumvent the CFCRS regulations promulgated in 2003. The one I outlined in this article appears to be the most widespread.

    But the point you raise about local (provincial/municipal) approved programmes, we understand differently. It is not a legitimate method to approve dual or foreign degrees.

    At the provincial level, only "exchange agreements" can be approved. These Exchanges allow Chinese students enrolled at Chinese universities to undertake a period of study at a foreign university, usually up to one year. They remain enrolled on the Chinese degree programme and must complete their final year back in China. So programmes may look like a 2+1+1 or 1+2+1 or, in many cases, a single semester abroad. In most cases, no foreign degree is conferred by the foreign university (as most of these are correctly perceived by the foreign university as Exchange Agreements, not dual degree programmes).

    The approval is for foreign credits to count toward the Chinese degree, not for a dual degree. However, some foreign universities agree to confer their own degree. In cases like this, the Chinese student must continue to pay home fees and usually any fees charged by the foreign university for the duration of their studies overseas.

    So this does not constitute legitimate Sino-Foreign collaboration under the terms laid down by the MoE. It is effectively a questionable use the regulatory requirements of Exchange Agreements to hide programmes awarding a foreign degree.

    Foreign universities are entitled to issue degrees to any student they believe have fulfilled the requirements of their degree. But not to PRC citizens for programmes delivered fully or partially in the PRC territory, which is why we're pretty sure these foreign degrees wouldn't be recognized.

    Its quite a clever workaround, as it allows Chinese students to receive a Chinese degree conferred by the MoE. This means that the inability of the student to have their foreign degree recognised does not matter as much.

    As you point out, correctly, "If the foreign degree program accepts transfer credit from the Chinese institution, the danger is that the foreign degree will not be recognized in China upon completion".

    This is because the Chinese student does not study long enough at the foreign university, and therefore cannot get a foreign degree certificate notarised by the PRC Embassy in the overseas destination. Also, as such agreements are for the purposes of Exchange, not for the delivery of a foreign degree, there is no way to validate the degree through the CFCRS degree validation system back in China.

    This confirms our suspicions that such programmes are not a legitimate way to operate foreign degree programmes in China as they invariably lead to a foreign degree which isn't recognized in China. They are, rather, an abuse of processes to legitimately register Exchange programmes of Chinese universities to ensure credits earned overseas are accepted towards a Chinese degree.

    Wuhan Uni, for example, list lots of exchange programmes, a few of which are listed as leading to dual programmes. But its our view that the foreign degrees issued to students this way would not be recognized or registered in the PRC.

    While foreign universities may claim these to be dual degrees, the Chinese partner can simply claim that they are Exchange Agreements approved by the provincial/municipal bureau. Its a circumvention of CFCRS regulations.

    Also, I expect this system only works for handfuls of students.

    However, I'd be very interested in hearing back from you if any of this doesn't reflect your experience.