Bogus colleges and qualifications: is supervision lax?

Despite repeated bans by China’s education authorities, new fake universities and other scams continue to pop up on blacklists that are published every year to alert the Chinese public.

Some students and their families are beginning to question whether there is adequate supervision of the shady business.

In May, China’s Ministry of Education issued a list of 2,845 accredited higher education institutions in China, including 447 private institutions and seven jointly run by Chinese and foreign universities, for prospective applicants to check against.

But students and their families say this is not enough. They said the government’s list of approved institutions was not publicised enough, and they had not been aware of it., a commercial website aimed at students and based in Jiangxi province, last month issued a list of 210 bogus colleges, 95 of them in Beijing. One of the institutions on the list was Beijing Foreign Trade Institute, which many students, commenting on China’s microblogging site Sina Weibo, said sounded completely genuine.

This is the third time the website has issued such a list, with 60 more institutions compared to last year. Some institutions do exist but are recruiting illegally after losing their accreditation, according to

Students and other organisations are calling for a crackdown by the authorities.

“The government is always talking about its crackdown on corruption and corrupt officials but these corrupt education businesses are continuing to cheat people and they are making a lot of money from this,” a professor in Guangdong province in southern China told University World News on condition of anonymity, concerned that one of the bogus institutions on the Sdaxue list had a similar sounding name to his own institution.

“As for condemning the fraudulent use of copycat names and marketing of bogus colleges, we hope a government crackdown is in order,” Shuai Yang, senior director of the Beijing Overseas Study Service Association or BOSSA, which oversees student recruitment agents in China, told University World News via email.


Some dubious organisations set up to dupe the public are involved in outright illegal practices and suck students in with the promise of a guaranteed place in an overseas institution.

In Australia up to 70 Chinese students faced disciplinary action or expulsion after an investigation by The Sydney Morning Herald newspaper in March found widespread cheating which involved paying a company to write their assignments.

A separate investigation by ABC TV found that leading universities in Australia had used the services of corrupt education agents who had falsified documents required to admit their clients to Australian universities, often in collusion with the students, it was alleged.

Often, universities turned a blind eye, regarding foreign students as a ‘cash cow’, or worse, they colluded with the agents in some cases, the investigations found.

The US Department of Justice in late May indicted 15 Chinese nationals for an elaborate scheme to fraudulently gain admission to US colleges and obtain student visas, using impersonators to take SAT, Graduate Record Examinations and the Test of English as a Foreign Language, or TOEFL, on their behalf. They used fake Chinese passports with doctored details to pass through immigration.

In 2008, as many as 50 Chinese students were expelled at one time from UK’s Newcastle University when the certificates they submitted to gain admission, including English language certificates, were found to be forged and professors became suspicious at their inability to keep up with the course.

The university said many of the students appeared to be victims of unscrupulous agents who submitted the documents on their behalf. It has since only worked with vetted agents.

‘Easy’ admission

In the past, students from China aiming to study overseas mainly applied for graduate programmes, but more and more students are going to universities overseas as undergraduates, many of them hoping to bypass China’s own rigorous National College Entrance Exam or gaokao, which is not required for overseas admissions.

A number of companies purport to help them gain ‘easy admission’ overseas despite their poor academic records. As a result, the number of Chinese students unable to cope with undergraduate studies in foreign countries is growing.

A recent report by academic services agency for Chinese students, WholeRen Education, said the number expelled had tripled in the past year from 500 known expulsions to more than 1,600. And this is just the tip of the iceberg.

According to WholeRen, as many as 8,000 Chinese students may have been expelled from US universities in the past three years due to “academic dishonesty or low academic performance”.

It said in a recent report that low grades were responsible for around 62% of officially known expulsions of Chinese students at US universities, and 20% for academic dishonesty. One in ten was expelled for low attendance.

A number of higher education experts told University World News there was a clear link between these expulsions and cheating in key exams – including using impersonators to take the examination in the applicant’s stead, and buying bogus qualification certificates which are sent to admissions offices when students are unqualified.

“The student arrives unable to undertake the course as his paper qualifications would indicate,” said one academic.

More expulsions

Expulsions from foreign universities are not confined to Chinese students. “Students expelled for poor academic performance is a common occurrence within most educational institutions,” said BOSSA president Sang Peng.

However he added: “Due to the continued rise in the numbers of Chinese students attending American universities, it is likely that the expulsion of Chinese students from overseas universities will continue in the near future or perhaps even increase in number.”

Some 430,000 Chinese students are admitted to US institutions each year.

Sang said only by improving the overall academic ability of students can “a lasting and effective solution to this problem”, of ensuring Chinese students can complete their studies abroad, be found.

“Despite achieving high scores in China’s exam-oriented system, there exists a significant gap between test scores and actual student ability. In addition there are major differences between Chinese and Western education systems – it is difficult for Chinese students to adjust to foreign education systems in a short period of time and [this is] the major reason why they failed to meet the academic requirements,” Sang said.


Other instances have frequently come to light of a student’s personal statement being written by recruitment agents on behalf of students, which contain exaggerations or blatant untruths, as well as bogus qualifications.

“Our association and its members strongly oppose this dishonest behaviour,” said Sang, “We would like to place future emphasis on the verification and authentication of students’ academic documents. BOSSA and the majority of our agency members recently signed a study abroad academic verification memorandum pledging to combat this issue,” he said.

Italy, France, Japan and Korea all require Chinese students to have their academic records checked by the Chinese Ministry of Education before entering their countries, and BOSSA says it verifies and authenticates academic records on behalf of the ministry, translating academic documents into English, which it has been doing since October 2014.

“If students receive a degree from a disingenuous institution then their academic transcripts will not be approved by BOSSA or the Ministry of Education and therefore the student will have isolated [themselves from] their chances of studying abroad,” BOSSA’s Yang said.

“The Ministry of Education will reject any application containing an unaffiliated institution upon academic background checking.”

Grey area

However, a large number of institutions, including private subsidiaries run by public universities in collaboration with other profit-making bodies, fall into a grey area that does not come under the supervision of the Education Ministry.

These often provide post-secondary preparatory courses with an emphasis on English for those intending to apply to universities overseas and several are run in collaboration with universities overseas, running so-called ‘pathway’ post-secondary programmes prior to admission.

“There are many organisations which are not universities but they are scams that are being set up. They say come and study with us and we will help you get to university overseas,” said Mike Gow, a global postdoctoral fellow at New York University Shanghai. “They are outside the remit of the Ministry of Education. It’s a shadowy grey area.”

The Chinese government includes on its approved list Sino-foreign joint universities, “but what they do not have is a list of approved pathway programmes”, said Gow. “There is literally no regulation. It’s scandalous.”

Often the students admitted to such programmes have such low gaokao scores they can’t get into any Chinese university yet they can use this route to an overseas university, Gow said.

Many are licensed under the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security as training institutions, in the same category as companies that provide test prep for examinations such as the Graduate Record Examinations or GRE, and the Graduate Management Admission Test or GMAT.

“But most of the British, US, Canadian and Australian universities that recruit through these institutions think that they are part of the formal sector. It’s not that they are being misled, but it is because the foreign partners aren’t doing due diligence and don’t really understand the Chinese system. There is a lot of fraud going on in this sector,” Gow said.