Quality chiefs have warned universities not to over-exploit the Chinese student market by expanding too quickly without proper controls over standards, or by glossing over cultural and language barriers.
After an audit of six universities' operations in China, the Quality Assurance Agency has warned two institutions that their planned expansion could jeopardise standards.
The QAA said it had "limited confidence" that the universities of Ulster and Wales College Newport had properly prepared plans to "scale-up" partnerships with Chinese institutions.
London Guildhall University was warned that its contract with a Chinese partner had caused confusion as to who was responsible for maintaining standards.
Although the six institutions were told there could be "broad confidence" that they were upholding degree standards, the criticisms are a setback for United Kingdom higher education, keen to exploit a burgeoning market.
China is the fastest growing source of overseas students studying in the UK, and UK universities are increasingly offering programmes in China.
The QAA auditors said that they had confidence in UWCN provision of an MBA programme in partnership with the South Sci-Tech Institute in Dongguan. Franchised certificates and diplomas in business administration are delivered to students who then take up jointly delivered MBAs.
"However, the continuing success of the model is dependent upon a number of key factors," the QAA auditors said. They warned that success relied on the "commitment and competence" of an individual member of staff at UWCN and on the excellence of an individual interpreter of Mandarin Chinese.
The QAA said this would cause problems when UWCN extended programmes to other centres. "Scaling-up to a more extensive operation... would put the effectiveness of the current model at risk," the auditors said.
Problems were identified with Ulster's partnership with the Hong Kong College of Technology International. The deal to provide a computing science degree had been expanded to the South China Agricultural University, an "outcentre" of the Hong Kong College. This meant that provision there was "further removed from the oversight of the university".
While there was confidence in standards delivered in Hong Kong, "there can be less confidence that the university has effective oversight of the arrangements for students" in the agricultural university, the auditors said.
The QAA said that there was potential for confusion about the division of responsibility for standards with LGU's partnership with the Hong Kong Management Association and NCC Education Ltd to provide a computing honours degree.
It said there were "questions about whether the learning experience offered to students at HKMA satisfied the expectations that the university would have for students on its own programme leading to an honours award".
Nichola Channon, head of operations at the QAA's institutional review directorate, said: "Where the use of a language other than English is an element in the delivery or assessment of a programme... the challenges associated with translation of teaching material or assessments should be considered very carefully before such an arrangement is agreed."