The actions of a few "bad apple" universities could destroy Britain's attempts to move into the burgeoning Chinese higher education market.
The Quality Assurance Agency said this week that a small number of universities, which it refused to name, had misled the agency about their activities in China, potentially undermining the work of others.
Nine universities were asked to take part in a survey of Chinese operations, but "a number of other UK institutions had responded to the survey claiming to have no collaborative arrangements with Chinese partners", the QAA said. During a visit to China it became apparent that some of them did have partnerships with Chinese universities.
"This failure to disclose the existence of established collaborative arrangements caused some confusion during the visit to China and had the potential to cause embarrassment for the institutions concerned, as well as for the QAA," says a QAA report.
The agency is concerned that the implications of such actions are huge for the whole sector. It says China has a "small and well-informed higher education community and no shortage of other overseas countries wishing to gain its confidence.
"There is a danger that if only one collaborative partnership... were to demonstrate a serious failure to maintain quality or academic standards, the country concerned could lose confidence in the collaborative arrangements of the UK sector as a whole - the 'bad apple' scenario. This would be particularly true of China.
"It is reasonable to assume that bad news would travel widely and quickly (in China)," the report says.
The report highlights the massive growth of the Chinese higher education market and the potential for the UK to exploit it. Since publication in 1998 of a ministry of education policy on development marking a dramatic shift from a planned to a market economy, the Chinese university sector has begun to tentatively welcome study-abroad programmes and overseas collaborations.
About 2 million students enrol in Chinese universities each year, with an annual expected growth of 12.5 per cent. But a shortage of lecturers and high-quality graduates is leading to a boom for overseas collaborators.
The authorities are determined that students who travel abroad to study should return to China and are concerned that some institutions, including UK universities, have been recruiting without such assurances. Other programmes were operating without proper approval from the ministry, the QAA team found.
Cultural awareness is also paramount: "The importance of getting to know a partner institution and its culture and understanding its expectations for the collaborative link cannot be over-emphasised," says the report.