Australian universities ‘singled out’ over ‘Frankenstein’ courses

Chinese ministry sanctions Australia’s joint programmes even though analyses highlight endemic problems in foreign teaching collaborations

February 23, 2021
Frankenstein monster hybrid
Source: istock

China appears to have unfairly singled out Australian universities by criticising their joint degree programmes while overlooking similar problems involving other countries’ institutions.

A statement posted by the China Academic Degrees and Graduate Education Development Centre (CDGDC), part of the Ministry of Education, highlighted the “insufficient investment in high-quality education resources” and “low level repetitive teaching” in courses that four Australian universities had delivered jointly with Chinese partner institutions.

The problems had been identified during the centre’s review of Sino-foreign joint programmes “since 2016”, the notice said. It foreshadowed reviews focusing exclusively on Australian partnerships.

But two years ago, a study by researchers at Griffith University, one of the four criticised institutions, uncovered widespread problems in Sino-foreign joint programmes.

The team evaluated “self-appraisal” reports submitted by almost 120 Chinese universities assessing their international collaborations with 100 partners from a range of countries in 2017. More than half said the partnerships had not adequately boosted the foreign language skills of the students, while almost one-third bemoaned shortages of qualified teachers.

Many international academics were able to visit for only short stints, “leaving very limited time for students to digest the content or interact with…the foreign teachers”, the report says.

Almost one in three programmes had also suffered from “low-quality” curriculum design and implementation, it adds. Poor coordination between the Chinese and overseas institutions meant that both sometimes ended up “repetitively” teaching the same material.

Such problems reflected “the so-called ‘Frankenstein approach’ of piecing Chinese and foreign curricular elements together”, the research says.

The report cites criticisms of partner institutions in Canada, Germany, Japan, South Korea, New Zealand and the UK as well as Australia. The CDGDC has flagged problems only with Australia.

Times Higher Education asked the centre why Australia had been singled out in this way but has not received a reply.

The statement emerged about a week before the ministry issued its first study-abroad warning of the year. It counselled students to “fully conduct safety risk assessments” and “carefully choose” whether to travel to Australia, following “vicious incidents” of “overseas students being attacked in many places in Australia”.

Observers believe such warnings are a symptom of the deteriorating bilateral relationship, alongside China’s moves to ban, delay or slap tariffs on Australian imports such as barley, coal, cotton, wine and wood.

But while safety warnings are often parroted in English, typically by the Global Times tabloid, the criticism of the joint programmes was issued only in Mandarin – a strange ploy if the intention was to fire a new salvo in a trade war.

Griffith vice-president (global) Sarah Todd said it was difficult to say what had motivated the criticism. She said her university had been collaborating with Chinese institutions for more than 15 years and the ministry had not flagged any problems since at least 2013, when she joined Griffith.

“Nothing has been raised with us to suggest there are any concerns,” Professor Todd said. “We [don’t] know exactly what it is in those evaluation reports that they’re referring to, or even the time period.”

She said Chinese authorities often cited Australian programmes as “case studies”, particularly on how to prepare students for overseas study. “It’s in our best interests to support the students because we get a higher transfer rate and there are fewer issues once the students arrive. It would make no sense not to invest in the programmes.”

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