Chinese universities accused of bending rules on PhDs for staff

Institution’s party chief dismissed in controversy over lecturers sent overseas to get doctoral qualifications

August 7, 2022
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Policy pressure on lower-tier Chinese universities to secure PhDs for their lecturers lies behind “inappropriate practice” which has been alleged recently, according to an expert.

Shaoyang University, in Hunan province, faced criticism last month after it spent ¥18 million (£2.2 million) on one-off payments for 22 staff who it sent to a university in the Philippines to earn a PhD and who were then rehired. According to a list that has now been removed from the university’s website, candidates from various faculties – ranging from economics to information engineering – all received a PhD in education from Adamson University in Manila.

Following public criticism, which focused on the staff securing PhDs within 28 months rather than the usual four years, local education authorities announced that Shaoyang’s party secretary had been dismissed for “inappropriate practice” in the university’s doctoral talent scheme.

Adamson University rejected claims that it provided “instant” PhDs, claiming that its doctoral offering “strictly adheres to the policies, guidelines, and standards set by the [Filipino] Commission on Higher Education, specifically, the minimum six terms of residency”.

But there are concerns about wider malpractice in the professional development of staff in lower-tier Chinese universities. Attention focused recently on a list of offer-holders for public vacancies published by Xingtai University in Hebei province, when it emerged that all 13 shortlisted candidates had graduated from institutions in South Korea.

Korean media reported that there was a demand for “short-term doctoral courses” from Chinese academics who would like to obtain a PhD, and in an extreme case a course was shortened from four months to just 12 days.

“The news reflects a few issues,” said Yang Lili, an assistant professor in the University of Hong Kong’s Faculty of Education. “For example, the evaluation of higher education institutions; the overwhelming preference for the academic strand of higher education rather than vocational higher education; and the difficult situations faced by lower-tier higher education institutions in China.”

Dr Yang said a key factor was “upgrading”, referring to how the proportion of faculty members holding a PhD is a key measure considered by the Chinese government in evaluation, tied to student recruitment, permission to open new master’s programmes and funding allocations.

A 2019 study of 701 public institutions in China found that only three in 10 teaching staff held a PhD at that time. However, the rate was much lower at institutions in China’s underdeveloped west (9 per cent) compared with universities that participate in the elite 985 project (over 68 per cent).

“Lower-tier institutions, especially those outside major cities, have low attractiveness to PhD holders. In such circumstances, institutions may look for some ‘other’ ways,” Dr Yang said.

When asked about suggestions to avoid similar cases in the future, Dr Yang said: “One important thing is to deal with the general preference for the academic strand of higher education – not only by higher education institutions but also by students and families – and the hierarchy in China’s higher education.

“Pursuing world-class universities is important. Looking for means to support lower-tier higher education institutions, which are in a much larger number, is also important.”

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