Smoke, mirrors and Chinese pipe dreams

January 6, 2006

To Western universities made-in-China degrees look lucrative - but they're fooling themselves, says exile Wei Jingsheng

When Western universities promote schemes to run their own branches in China, most of their talk is about the importance of cultural dissemination, exchange and knowledge. Yet their boards of directors discuss those same plans with the simple goal of making money, and that is always the deciding factor in whether or not such schemes get approved.

I have never come across a college board of directors whose goals are any loftier, yet they can hardly be blamed for this view. If schools are successfully established, they can indeed achieve the effect of cultural dissemination, exchange and knowledge building. That is what we Chinese are concerned most about. We cannot be blamed for our views, either.

The Chinese people are poor and worship anything foreign. For us, Western university diplomas are both honourable and practical. Yet the majority of the Chinese people have neither the money nor the opportunity to go abroad.

Thus a number of exchange students studying in the West have seen a business opportunity to bring the names of famous Western universities back home.

But one consequence of this development is to reduce the opportunity for those who control China's state higher educational institutions to make money by running their own schools. So in order to resolve any conflict, the benefits are shared between Western universities and the Chinese officials.

The solution most palatable to the Chinese side is to have schools that dispense famous-name Western diplomas but are directed by staff from Chinese higher education institutions. If this arrangement is allowed to continue, however, the value of those diplomas will fall around the world.

And as it does so, the money that Western universities hoped to make will end up in the Swiss bank accounts of the Chinese education bureaucrats through whose hands it passes. Diplomas from famous Western universities have become a hot item in the bribery of Chinese officials, and board members can enjoy much higher profits than they might expect to receive from any other industry.

Furthermore, the Chinese authorities in charge of ideology will not give up their jurisdiction over this piece of fatty meat. They will make it difficult for Western universities to fulfil their good intentions.

Cultural dissemination and exchange is just a beautiful illusion. Even in the West, Western universities do not concern themselves with Chinese human rights issues, let alone after they have entered China.

I once talked with a man who works in Chinese higher education about how big the market for Western diplomas actually is. He believes Western universities do not understand what the Chinese people want and hence hold overly optimistic expectations. In their analysis, many people want to receive Western diplomas. But what they really want are diplomas from Western universities in the West - not Chinese imitations.

Westerners may think that the schools they are running in China are still Western universities. But Chinese people commonly see it otherwise. It is impossible for these diplomas to carry the same value in China's job market as one from a university in the West.

This man also pointed out that the vast majority of Chinese people do not go to Western universities simply for study. In fact, more than half of them are not interested in studying at all. They are just looking for a way to move to the West and to see if there are any opportunities to stay and not return to China.

If you take a look at the ratio of how many of the Chinese students studying abroad return home versus how many remain abroad, you will understand. If you take Western universities and move them into China, how many people would still want to matriculate there?

You can make a rough calculation by looking at this ratio. Of course, those who lack the money to study abroad may well be willing to matriculate at home, but they are the ones who cannot afford expensive tuition fees. The Western ideal of making money from higher education in China is, I fear, just a dream.

Wei Jingsheng is an exiled Chinese human rights and democracy activist.

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