Jiao Yizhou, a 17-year-old student at Jiangsu College for International Education in Nanjing, hopes to study environmental engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology in the US.
Like many applicants to university, however, he is anxious about the entrance tests and essays involved. He says he knows that some Chinese students cheat on their applications, persuade their teachers to falsify secondary school grades and recommendations, and hire agents who purportedly write admission essays for them.
“This kind of thing does not bother me, because I did it the right way and the university officials are not stupid,” Jiao says. “They can tell which applications are real and which are fake.”
But increasing competition for places at universities in the West, in concert with huge year-on-year rises in the number of applicants from China, have left admissions officials worried about what experts say is a widespread and growing practice of cheating.
“I don’t mean to caricature this as happening at every school,” says Linda McKinnish Bridges, associate dean of admissions and director of programme development in China for Wake Forest University, a private institution in North Carolina.
“But some schools I’ve visited have said to me: ‘We will work with you in any way we can to get these students into the United States.’”
The problem has become increasingly apparent in recent years. In 2011, research by Nafsa, the Association of International Educators and US educational consulting firm Zinch China found that 90 per cent of recommendation letters for Chinese applicants to Western universities had been falsified.
The two organisations, which conducted interviews with 250 students at top-ranked secondary schools in China, also concluded that 70 per cent of admissions essays had been written by someone other than the applicants, half of secondary school transcripts had been doctored, and many awards and achievements were fake.
“Fraudulent applications are pervasive in China, driven by hypercompetitive parents and aggressive agents” who can earn financial bonuses for getting students into top Western universities, the researchers said.
They added that the phenomenon was driven mostly by middle-class Chinese parents determined to have their children study abroad, 80 per cent of whom paid agents to help make it happen.
The going rate for this was up to $10,000 (£6,475) per student – and as much as double that if the agent could get the student into an institution at the top of the most influential university league tables.
“The cultural norm in China is to consider a 17-year-old not yet capable of managing a decision as important as his or her college education,” the Zinch and Nafsa report, Fraudulent Chinese Undergraduate Student Applications, said. Or as Bridges puts it, Chinese parents “have got one child and for that one child you will do everything you can to help [them] get ahead”.
Agents, the researchers said, would have admissions essays ghost-written, hiring recent returnees from Western universities or expatriate English-speaking teachers in China to do so. They also identified private essay-writing services.
Matters have not improved since then and officials in China acknowledge the problem.
It’s a “legitimate concern”, says Rob Cochrane, the Australian-born international programmes manager at the Jiangsu Provincial Department of Education.
But he lays the blame on the application process.
“Just the nature of that process over distance provides a huge opportunity for the not-so-ethically minded to perhaps fudge their credentials,” Cochrane says. “The whole idea of a written application from a second-language applicant, whether from China or anywhere else on the planet, is fraught with danger.”
Nor is China the only place where applicants to Western universities are said to cheat. Last month, the US firm Educational Testing Service cancelled the scheduled administration of its SAT college entrance exam in South Korea after test-preparation services reportedly obtained copies of the questions in advance.
“The issue is about the process rather than the people who are applying,” Cochrane says.
Whatever the reason for it, the cheating is vastly complicating the work of admissions officers in the West, who are dealing with ever-greater numbers of applications from China as their institutions accept more and more students from the country to bring in much-needed revenue.
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation estimates that 440,000 Chinese citizens are studying abroad, with the US and the UK being the two most popular destinations.
China sends nearly 200,000 students a year to the US, almost four times as many as it did at the start of the millennium, with the cohort representing one in four of the international students coming to the country.
Applications from China to Wake Forest have risen from 79 a year to more than 600 over the past five years. Bridges, who speaks fluent Mandarin, visits Chinese secondary schools, and she and other admissions counsellors conduct interviews in English with students via Skype while also having them complete sample writing assignments – all to weed out fraud.
“If the student is very strong, but I have some reservations about their English ability, and if the student does not understand and I have to revert to Mandarin – then that student is not coming to Wake Forest,” she says.
Another survey by Zinch China, unveiled last month, tested the language skills of 25,000 Chinese students hoping to study overseas. It found that two-thirds did not speak English well enough to use it in a classroom discussion. This represents a marked increase on last year, when the English skills of 38 per cent were judged to be deficient.
The proportion whose language skills are judged to be “strong” fell from 18 per cent to 4 per cent.
Cochrane says that Chinese students have become so good at taking standardised tests, including the Test of English as a Foreign Language, that “it wouldn’t be unfair to say that, with decent preparation and practice, they would probably be able to get a score marginally higher than their actual communicative skills”.
Talk of cheating may lead to changes in China, Cochrane suggests.
“There’s a lot of talk about it at our end. Cheating is not accepted here as being the norm, although lots of people ask me whether it is. The Chinese people are a proud people. They don’t want to be branded pariahs in the education system.”
One solution, he argues, would be to require the accreditation of agents. Another would be for universities to demand that Chinese applicants’ academic work be submitted via hard-to-counterfeit digital portfolios.
In the West, the issue is likely to be addressed more forcefully as more and more Chinese students arrive unprepared for education in English.
These students are valuable to universities’ bottom lines, but that benefit would be negated by the cost of having them drop out later, or of having to provide them with additional English-language education, tutoring and other support.
“The cost of not being able to keep that student is tremendous,” Bridges says. For universities in the West, “the incentive, the motivator that might change this, is retention instead of attrition”.
Meanwhile, for Chinese schools and parents, perhaps the biggest motivator is the fear of loss of face. That is something that could alter the behaviour of Chinese secondary schools whose students leave to study in the West but then return without degrees – or are caught falsifying grades and transcripts.
Bridges says she no longer accepts applications from the school whose headmaster told her he would do anything it took to get his students into Western universities.
“If the student who has been pushed into this by some eager principal, some eager agent, some eager parent, then goes home having failed, at that point [the Chinese] will see this is a long-term problem,” she says.
Back in Nanjing, Yizhou’s classmate, Zhu Yi, is hoping to go to Boston University in the US.
He, too, knows that some Chinese students cheat, he says.
“Frankly, it’s true. But not everybody does that,” Zhu adds. “Most people do those things in the right way.”