Communist official fired for rehiring ‘fast track’ PhD staff

The Communist Party Secretary at Shaoyang University in China’s central Hunan Province was fired after it was revealed the university spent more 18 million yuan (US$2.67 million) on rehiring almost two dozen employees after they had acquired ‘fast-track’ doctoral degrees in the Philippines.

The incident has highlighted an increasingly common practise of mid-tier universities in China trying to rise up rankings by upgrading the qualifications of their staff, sometimes by dubious means.

In early July the university publicly announced it had ‘rehired’ 22 teachers after they had obtained PhD’s at Adamson University in the Philippines in just 28 months compared to the usual minimum of four years for a doctorate in China.

Official Chinese media announced that Peng Xilin, secretary of the Party Committee at Shaoyang University, lost his job in early July. The university is now under investigation by Hunan education authorities.

The official Global Times newspaper last month reported that Hunan’s provincial education authority had announced the university was “required to make corrections”, with further investigations under way. The Hunan authorities on 24 July said an investigation had revealed “improper practices exist in the introduction of doctoral talents and other aspects”.

Shaoyang University issued a statement in early July when the controversy over the rehired teachers began trending on Chinese social media, noting that 23 ‘doctors’ hired by the university had completed their PhDs in pedagogy at Adamson University, a private university in the Philippines, from August 2019 to December 2021.

According to the university’s notice, the rejoining bonus included an ‘introduction’ fee for each doctorate candidate of 350,000 yuan (US$51,870), a research start-up fee of 150,000 yuan, rental subsidies of 144,000 yuan, and a bonus of 200,000 yuan for those who did not need a job for their spouse.

Of the 23, all but one had previously been staff members at Shaoyang, with titles that included lecturer, associate professor, and senior laboratory technician among others. Despite specialising in education for their doctoral work, some were rehired into management roles at Shaoyang while others were teaching subjects unrelated to their doctorate, including sports and engineering subjects.

According to academics in China, it is highly unusual for faculty members to be teaching subjects unrelated to their PhDs.

Improving internationalisation indicators

Netizens suggested Shaoyan University had rehired the PhDs in order to show they had a large number of PhDs from foreign universities among their faculty – one of the important indicators of internationalisation, which can push university’s up rankings, as well as improving indicators on the proportion of PhDs among staff.

But some questioned whether such fast track doctorates actually represented an improvement in quality of teaching and staff.

Academics note that it has become common to send younger teachers to Southeast Asia or South Korea to upgrade their qualifications. Many education authorities and universities pay part or all the tuition fees for their faculty members to encourage them to study for doctorates.

In February, Xingtai authorities in China's northern Hebei Province revealed that Xingtai University had posted a list of 13 women teachers expected to be hired by the university – all with PhDs in education, Chinese studies and other fields from three universities in South Korea – Woosuk University, Jeonju University and Wonkwang University. All 13 had previously worked at Xingtai University.

Some universities have arrangements with universities in countries like the Philippines and Malaysia to send faculty members in large batches for special shortened programmes. These accelerated doctorates typically have a large online component so some of the research can be conducted while in China.

The Shaoyang incident has shed light on how particularly mid-tier universities and new university campuses being built in many parts of China are struggling to hire teachers with PhDs, with the number of faculty with doctorates a significant indicator of a university’s ranking within China.

A number of universities have paid bonuses including for staff returning with a PhD. Some institutions in poorer provinces such as Shaanxi and Guizhou, which find it hard to attract staff with doctorates, advertising joining fees as high as 1.1 million to 1.2 million yuan for lecturers with PhDs from highly ranked universities.

However, it is relatively rare for universities in the regions to get academics from top universities, so such sums are rarely paid out and the joining bonuses actually paid out are less than half or a third of these amounts.

China’s Ministry of Education has its own stringent policies and procedures on conferring PhDs, with some 300 universities in China offering doctoral programmes. Given the demand, these can be difficult to get into.

Universities under review

Adamson University, a private institution, is one of four universities in the Philippines and one from Malaysia that has come under review by the Chinese Ministry of Education’s Service Centre for Overseas Students since November 2021 over Chinese accreditation of their degrees. The Centre under the ministry said it would “make independent judgements based on material provided by the university and relevant reports” on whether it would continue to accept these qualifications.

Adamson has its own Chinese language website advertising full doctoral programmes for 168,000 yuan (US$24,880) in all, including tuition, exam fees, assignment assistance and assistance with essays and theses.

In a statement issued on 26 July Adamson University said PhD offerings at the university “adheres to the guidelines and standards set by the (Philippines) Commission on Higher Education (CHED).

“PhD degrees conferred to Adamson graduates had passed through stringent verification and procedures and are awarded in accordance with their successful compliance to institutional and CHED requirements,” the university said.

“The questionable practices and improprieties allegedly committed by the president of Shaoyang College do not reflect inadequacies in the credibility and legitimacy of Adamson University’s educational programs nor do they signify Adamson’s involvement in any such malpractice or misconduct,” the university said.

It said it would “review options” in seeking remedies available in law or equity to protect the preserved reputation and name of the institution.

Adamson University also said that admission to their doctorate program was based on students’ credentials, not on the donation or any monetary arrangement with the university in China.

“To put the record straight, Adamson University has no official linkage with Shaoyang University and their faculty members came to enrol in the Graduate School on their own, armed with appropriate admission credentials,” the university said.

CHED Chairman Prospero de Vera said in a statement in late July: “This report of an instant PhD is very alarming and prejudicial to the international reputation of our Philippin higher education institutions,” De Vera said, adding: “CHED will not condone any violation of existing laws and regulations, autonomous or no.”

“Adamson University has been granted an autonomous status by CHED. Although, Adamson is free from regular monitoring of CHED as an autonomous institution, CHED may conduct investigation activities in case of reports of a general erosion of quality and/or gross violation of laws, rules and regulations that adversely affect the good standing of the Phillipin higher education as a reputable education institution,” de Vera said.