Corruption By Degree: China’s Crackdown Moves to the Academic Sector

The financial crisis of 2008 brought China’s decades-long reliance on cheap manufacturing exports to induce extraordinary growth and savings rates to a spluttering end. The plan henceforth is to stimulate domestic-led growth through science and innovation. The result is that China’s universities and research community is now more important than ever within the broader Chinese national vision and economic reforms. And hence, the academic sector is now in view of China’s corruption investigators. This piece introduces the nature of the corruption, and some examples of the ongoing crackdown.

Corruption in the academic sector in China applies mainly to capital expenditure, admissions and staff promotion. The least complex and most common area of corruption is said to be within campus-related construction and the purchase of goods and materials. University budgets for campus modernization have recently expanded. Related contracts have been awarded in some cases without proper tenders. This produces opportunity for nepotism and embezzlement of funds, which is said to take place with collusion from local and provincial officials.

Student admission processes are similarly said to be imperfect. Universities have permission to select a minority of students via interview and other selection methods, rather than through the national entrance examination process. It is this intake quota that is the most open for exploitation. In response to accusations of unfair entry for some students, the Ministry of Education has called for universities to publish the credentials of their students, including recording of entrance interviews and publishing their entrance exam scores. Universities found to be abusing the propriety admission process may be excluded from being able to use it. Prestigious Renmin University in Beijing is an example of an elite university that has been caught up in a number of entrance scandals.

The national college and graduate college entrance exams also face persistent threats of corruption. In the national graduate entrance exam held in the first week of January 2014 for example, 223 students in the north-western province of Heilongjiang alone were found to have violated exam regulations. 196 of these cheated using communication devices.

A well-covered case of such cheating involved the Harbin Polytechnic University’s MBA entrance examination. Since such devices are only allowed through with permission from exam officials, it is thought that university officials colluded with training centre officials responsible for hosting the entrance exam. Chinese media reported that some students were led to one room, and others to another, with one room allowing the use of such devices. Two admissions offers are currently suspended, and the entire MBA program on hold.

Within the university sector, it is also reported by Chinese media that promotions, tenure and titles are all available to be bought and sold for the right amount of cash.  Plagiarism between Chinese researchers and from non-Chinese sources is also rife. The Ministry of Education has called for “zero tolerance” to plagiarism. The Ministry of Science and Technology stripped a professor of a national prize in 2011 because of plagiarism.

Illustrating the government’s determination of crackdown on tacit permission given to such activities within the university system, are recent high-level investigations.  In December the Vice-President of Zhejiang University was arrested and suspended on suspicion of occupational crime. The vice president of Sichuan University was placed under investigation for suspected serious discipline violations in December.

China’s higher education reforms follow the 2010 “National Outline for Medium and Long-Term Education Reform and Development (2010-2020)”. This calls for the acceleration of the development of world-class Chinese universities. The success of the plan is necessary for realising China’s broader innovation goals that in their own right are now crucial for China being able to continue raise the standard of living across the country. The degree of success of the crackdown will impact not only the value of a Chinese degree going forth, but also the success of China’s intended economic transformation – and none less thus than the future of the world economy.

Lauren Johnston received her PhD in economics from Peking University, and is an expert on the Chinese university landscape. Indeed, it is unlikely that there are many native English speakers who know more about Chinese universities than she does. Lauren edits an online newsletter Sinograduate that offers in depth analysis of Chinese higher education issues. It is a genuine ‘must-read’ for anyone interested in this rapidly expanding sector. Lauren can be contacted at

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  1. […] This is an abridged version of a piece first appearing on  here. […]

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