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Halo around higher education dimming
( 2003-10-08 12:48) (China Daily)

It is a quintessentially Chinese notion that a scholar is supposed to be serious and is often held to the highest moral standard. Even during feudal times, when corruption was rampant and the rule of law was almost non-existent, the imperial exam system that served as a bona fide certification for public servants was regarded as free from chicanery.

A handcuffed suspect stands beside piles of fake documents intended for sale, at his residence in Zhengzhou, Henan Province.

While what it tested was increasingly out of touch with the real world, the integrity with which it was conducted provided a platform where people rich or poor could compete on an equal footing.

That seemed to be the "good old days". The halo around higher education is dimming as more and more people have access to it and, more significantly, a substantial number of the recipients employ various means of deception in getting the diplomas or degrees.

"China's college credentials are losing their value," deplored Zhu Qingshi, president of University of Science and Technology of China. When schools not qualified for certain programmes are turned into diploma mills, the gain in quantity will surely be offset by a drop in quality, said Zhu. And it will result in a waste of education resources as well as depreciation of these certificates.

In 2000, for the first time in Chinese history, post-graduate enrollments reached 120,000 and the pace has been accelerating. On a positive note, it shows that higher education, especially post-graduate education, is no longer limited to a select few and the overall level of education is rising nationwide.

But there is a seamy side, too, said Wang Jianping, a media commentator.

"A school wants money, and a student wants a diploma for decoration. There seems to be a perfect fit," wrote Wang. "In the hit novel Siege (Wei Cheng) a character buys a fake diploma abroad but feels uneasy about it. Nowadays, some people don their ill-gotten graduation regalia with no shame at all; whereas in the public eye, it is more like the emperor's new clothes."

When one talks about "academic fraudulence", one can be referring to one of many forms. Some are uniquely Chinese and others have distinctly foreign origins; likewise, some are being addressed by the authorities while others have a way of mutating that eludes official attention.

Seeing the huge demand for overseas diplomas in China, Wild-chicken schools - foreign schools so nicknamed for lacking proper certification, staff or equipment - take advantage and set a high price tag on their degrees.

Diplomas for sale

The most blatant form of cheating is fake documents. According to a CCTV report, a Shenzhen talent agency made a random inspection of 3,000 applicant diplomas and found that as many as 800 were forged. There is no scientific data available about the exact severity of the problem, but a 2000 estimate put the nationwide figure of falsified diplomas at 600,000.

Some people say that empirical evidence points to a rising ubiquity of the phenomenon. Someone with a backpack walking outside a downtown book centre in major cities is often approached by vendors of fake diplomas. Online, things are even worse. A Harvard Ph.D. diploma is sold for only US$100.

For counterfeiters who manufacture these look-alike documents for a living, education certificates are just one product line out of a whole pool of fake stuff, which may include fake invoices, product labels or any printed matter.

There are four places in China that are notorious for churning out these fakes: Zhoukou of Henan Province, Cangnan of Zhejiang Province, Chaoshan of Guangdong Province and Jinjiang of Fujiang Province.

"You'll be amazed how authentic these fabrications look," said an officer who has raided on one of the places.

Public opinion seems to doubt the effectiveness of these crackdown efforts. "As long as there is market demand for it, rooting out the manufacturers will only drive up the price of fake products, but not eradicate it," said one commentator.

In response, some government agencies have taken action. A local regulation in Guangdong stipulates that anyone using a fake diploma is subject to a maximum of 30,000 yuan (US$3,614) in penalty, the same amount as the manufacturer or vendor.

Yunnan Province has appealed to the sense of guilt of counterfeiters. Anyone who comes forward to annul the forgery will be pardoned. While none of these good-intentioned moves has achieved much results, the best antidote has arrived in the form of technology.

A nationwide online system for certification is being set up and it is fast, accurate and cost-saving, according to Ye Zhiming, director of the personnel department at Guangzhou Academy of Social Sciences. "We used to make a lot of calls before we could confirm a single certificate. But now all we need to do is to input the number and pay 15 yuan."

Ye told China Daily that this system can stamp out 80-90 per cent of known diploma forgeries. While some smaller schools have not installed a proper database and many old records have not been entered yet, the chance of getting past a strict human resources officer is getting slim.

Paper worship

Many of these people buy the phony diplomas to get a job or a promotion. While private employers often use education as a yardstick for job applicants, government agencies usually use it as a dividing line for certain promotions. "What would you do if you have worked all your life and possess all the qualifications for a higher position excerpt a degree that has suddenly become a prerequisite?" asked a promotion candidate who wanted to remain anonymous.

A woman passes a poster on a street in Shaoyang, Hunan Province, offering all kinds of fake certificates for sale.

One way of going around the hurdle is to get a diploma from an overseas college that sets conditions on the financial rather than academic preparedness of a candidate. In other words, as long as you can afford the tuition, you won't be required to sit through hundreds of hours of classes and finish mounds of homework to get the degree. The Chinese call these "wild-chicken schools" because they are often not properly certified, staffed or equipped. Yet they may have grand-sounding names that impress the unsophisticated.

"It is not as easy to verify a foreign diploma," said Ye, the Guangzhou-based personnel officer. For example, a Harvard graduate in Shandong was suspected of producing a fake diploma to get a high-paying job, and was fired. But later it was found that his diploma was genuine. "If it had been a lesser-known school or an evening programme, it might be much more difficult to obtain this piece of information," Ye reasoned.

For diploma-seekers who occupy critical official positions, it is often easier to get a degree from a domestic school. An inside source told China Daily that some local officials enroll in master's or Ph.D. programmes of prestigious schools, often as part-time students. But they rarely show up for classes. Their homework and graduation thesis are mostly penned by others. When it comes to the grading, the panel of professors would be pressured from the school authority to "let it pass".

"I'm not inferring that the person does not have the knowledge for the degree. He is intelligent. The problem is, he simply does not have the time for a degree programme like this. He is at the peak of his career and he is doing a lot of good things for his constituencies. But to bestow him this degree would be against my principle," revealed the source, who is an eminent scholar.

In the above two cases, the diplomas are authentic, but either the school is not reputable or there is a "substitute" acquiesced by all the parties thus constituting a travesty of academic integrity.

Some schools have realized that a quick buck may carry a hefty price in terms of eroded reputation. Guanghua School of Management of Peking University has recently announced that, starting from 2003, it will no longer accept part-time Ph.D. students. "We have to ensure that our Ph.D. candidates have the necessary time for it," said a deputy dean.

Diploma worship in the job market is considered to be the main cause of rampant academic fraud.

The middle road

Between buying an outright fake and spending a lot of money and very little time on a genuine one that is fraudulent in essence, there is a vast gray area that yields a multitude of creative or risk-taking trickery.

Some students are quite serious about their school work, but when it comes to exam time they tend to lose their self-confidence and prefer to send someone else in their place. English-proficiency certification is a stumbling block that trips many career aspirants and sends them away in search of "substitute testers".

Plagiarism is another form of dishonesty that has percolated from the rank and file to the most elite class. Wang Mingming, a Peking University professor of anthropology, was found to have "borrowed" 100,000 words from a foreign textbook for his own work. A professor from China University of Mining and Technology deplored the current phenomenon of some of his colleagues churning out dozens of theses every year as "copy and paste" quickies.

Moving further away from shameless cheating is a form of shameless self-glorification. Some people have a tendency to call their own work "unprecedented", "breaking national records" or "reaching international level". Zou Chenglu, a prominent scientist, listed this as one of the major "sins" of academic duplicity, but others see it as an expression of ego-boosting.

So, what should be done about the varying degrees of deception in the education field? Some are arguing for tougher penalties such as taking the offenders to court. "A slap on the wrist is no deterrent," said Wen Zhichuan, a commentator. "They have broken the law and they should be punished accordingly."

Others point to the culture of diploma worship as the eventual culprit. If that is carried to the extreme, cheating is the natural corollary because people are measured by their diploma, nor their real talent, which may or may not correspond to their education, it is argued.

It is unrealistic to expect the campus to be a land of purity totally detached from the real world, some contend. Whatever dirty trick is practiced in the society at large will definitely be replicated, in one variation or another, in the world of education. There will never be a simple be-all and end-all defence, but a dynamic mechanism is needed to fight an ongoing war so that ethical behaviour will ultimately prevail.

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