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A Frankenstein recruiting system feeding off students

China’s appetite for education is insatiable. The expansion of its domestic higher education system has seen the gross enrolment rate of school-leavers rise from 4% to 33% between 1998 and 2014.

This is expected to peak at 40% of school-leavers in 2020. Competition to get into university is fierce, with approximately one in three of those who sit the gruelling gaokao examination securing a place in a four-year undergraduate programme.

To get into a top Chinese university, such as one of China’s leading 39 research intensive universities, the members of Project 985, is an achievement difficult to accurately capture in words. Suffice it to say that it is a formidable task to overcome the world’s most brutally competitive university entrance exam.

Meanwhile, the number of Chinese students pursuing education overseas has been increasing over the last three decades, with an explosion occurring over the last five years. Between 1978 and 2012, more than 2.6 million students went to other countries to study.

Figures for 2013 alone were in excess of 400,000, up from 200,000 in 2008, with the UK and US now commanding around 60% of that number. Much of this recent growth has been captured by an American higher education sector increasingly hospitable to Chinese students and the tuition fees they bring.

But private conversations with colleagues across the US also reveal that some institutions are struggling to integrate large numbers of Chinese students and are overwhelmed by this tsunami of intellectual migrants.

There can be little doubt that, alongside the emergence of a wealthy middle class in China who possess the financial means to pay for a foreign education, the major driving factors in this increase are a combination of: a) limited access to quality universities within the PRC and b) an increasing sense among parents of today’s high school students that China’s higher education system does not deliver the teaching quality or student-centred approach to learning that their sons and daughters will need to succeed in competitive job markets.

Low-hanging fruit

Higher education in Britain has been a market-maker in China, entering early and plucking the low-hanging fruit. It has also learned some harsh lessons, largely at the mercy of the fastest-changing and most cut-throat market in the world.

Furthermore, British universities, and several private UK-based student recruitment firms particularly active in this regard, have been complicit in the emergence of China’s higher education agent industry.

It has been too easy for agents to work their charm on target-driven international office staff and, over time, for agents to develop into an informal cartel, working in unison to lobby China’s education policy-makers to ring-fence the recruitment industry. This has been achieved with the help of government regulation restricting foreign universities’ recruitment activities to organised recruitment fairs and requiring them to work with licensed agents.

The losers in this sorry affair are the Chinese students and, financially at least, their parents. In situations where universities or foreign recruitment and pathway companies offer higher finders’ fees, agents channel the students to the institutions paying the biggest kickbacks.

Such a system does not generally operate in the students’ interests, nor ultimately in the universities’ interests, especially those that enrol students who haven’t made a choice based on the best available information.

While US universities may think themselves immune to this, given American policies against paying fees directly to recruitment agents, in practice this leads to students paying higher fees to the agents, with many charging according to a university’s ranking.

Students go to the agents expecting advice and help, but what they get is ripped off and jostled into the university that gets the agent the most money – from either the student, the university, or both. They make their money rain or shine.

It's not uncommon for the fees that agents charge the students to exceed CNY50,000 (more than US$8,000), and more if they get into a top-ranked university.

Of course, ghost-writing of personal statements, CVs and rumours of widespread falsification of qualifications are also symptomatic of a Frankenstein system that has evolved to feed off the need of foreign universities to plug funding gaps with increased international student numbers.

For-profit subsidiary colleges

The agents directly channelling students to foreign universities, however, are only part of this dystopia. The first movers who entered China in the early years of the 21st century to establish pathways and foundation centres initially reaped huge rewards from a seemingly endless supply of good quality students.

As the years have passed, however, they have been knowledge-mined by ruthless competitors and, often, by the agents they have employed to recruit students directly to their home campus. Numbers and quality of students have fallen, in some cases leading to the withdrawal or closing of operations completely.

Almost every reputable Chinese university now has a for-profit subsidiary company on its campus running A-Levels, SAT, Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate, Foundation programmes, 2+2’s, 1+3’s, 1+1 masters degrees and all other iterations of US, UK, Canadian, Australian and other degree programmes.

This provides a much needed income stream free from the earmarking and audit processes of funds distributed to the universities by the central and provincial governments. These quasi-independent companies, licensed as training companies by the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security, not by the Ministry of Education, recruit two broad categories of students.

The first are those who have withdrawn from China’s formal education system, renouncing the torment of the gaokao in favour of foreign-accredited post-16 education such as A-Levels, International Baccalaureate and SATs.

The second are those whose gaokao results are either insufficient to obtain a place at a good university, or not good enough to get into any university.

These for-profit subsidiary colleges have the veneer of respectability: the parent university’s name or a variation thereof, often appended with “International College” or “Study Abroad Centre”; a crest or logo bearing some resemblance to that of the parent university, and facilities on the campus of their parent institution.

Yet they never enrol students from their parent university but take those who have opted out of Chinese high school, or who have fallen short in the gaokao. Not only are such for-profit colleges ubiquitous, they partner with large numbers of UK, US, Australian and other universities seeking to increase their enrolment of students.

Looking at the home pages of UK and Australian universities listed on the website of one such international college, it is clear that one Russell Group university and one Group of Eight university are proud of their partnerships. But it is also clear they believe they are partnered with a Chinese university rather than a for-profit training company running pathway and articulation programmes not listed as approved on the Ministry of Education’s website.

This situation is, sadly, extremely common and raises the question of how much due diligence is carried out when such programmes are established.

Whether knowingly or not, through complacency, wilful complicity or simple incompetence, universities must accept some responsibility for the creation of an industry that extracts money from Chinese students and which poses a significant risk to admissions standards.

Mike Gow is a global postdoctoral fellow at NYU Shanghai, China.

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