China partners face audit

March 11, 2005

One in three UK higher education institutions has a partnership "of some kind" to deliver UK degrees in China, quality watchdogs report.

But inspectors are so concerned over the rush to exploit the world's biggest higher education market that they have announced plans for a review of the standard of UK degree courses offered in China.

As a result of a major shortage of university places in China, about 1.3 million young people fail to get into university each year despite having suitable qualifications. It is a gap in the market that the UK has been quick to exploit.

The British Council estimates that about 50,000 Chinese students come to Britain to study each year, with some 32,000 joining higher education courses.

But universities fear that the market is becoming saturated and warn that visa problems and the high cost of living are deterring students from studying in Britain.

Instead, more universities are choosing to set up shop in China.

While universities are not required to report the number of students taking their courses overseas, the British Council estimates that about 70,000 students in China are doing so. But this could be a "gross underestimate", a spokesman said.

Nottingham University is establishing a campus to provide its degrees for up to 4,000 students in Ningbo, in partnership with an independent education provider, Wanli Educational Group. Last November, Napier University confirmed it was entering into a joint venture with Shandong University.

In a circular sent to university heads last week, the Quality Assurance Agency says it will send teams of auditors to China next year to "provide assurance that UK higher education institutions are managing this rapidly developing situation effectively".

The review, of between 15 and 20 partnerships, will "also provide assurance to students and others in China that programmes offered through partnership arrangements are comparable in quality to those offered in the UK, and lead to awards that meet UK academic standards".

Five years ago, after its first visit to China, the QAA issued a statement warning of the "bad apple" effect.

China has a "small and well-informed higher education community and no shortage of other countries wishing to gain its confidence", the agency says.

Stephen Jackson, director of reviews at the QAA, said this week that the agency would send three audit teams to China.

"Because of the scale of the interest and the activity, we're having to do a large, comprehensive review," he said.

"There are issues about how institutions have managed their development and planning - but that is not specific to China. We've had similar issues with other countries in the past."

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