UK standards watchdog concerned over quality and student 'exploitation' in HK, Guangzhou courses
Education watchdogs have raised concern about the standard of some joint degree programmes offered through partnerships between institutions in Hong Kong, Britain and the mainland.
The latest audit of the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) for Higher Education in Britain reported deficiencies in two Bachelor degree programmes in computing and information technology delivered in Hong Kong and Guangzhou.
The findings have prompted the agency to warn UK universities not to over-exploit the growing Chinese student market.
The agency's report results from a two-week audit on six joint degree programmes offered in collaboration between the UK, Hong Kong and the mainland. Each year, the QAA selects different countries and institutions to assess joint degree programme standards.
One programme under scrutiny was a collaboration between the University of Ulster, the Hong Kong College of Technology and its satellite campus at the South China Agricultural University (SCAU), offered to mainland students. The other was a programme jointly organised by London Guildhall University, NCC Education Ltd in the UK and the Hong Kong Management Association (HKMA), offered to students in Hong Kong.
The UK universities involved in the two cases are the degree-awarding bodies with responsibility for curriculum design and monitoring of standards.
The training opportunities, assessment methods, students' English proficiency, and the division of labour between the institutions were questioned in both cases. The QAA asked whether the two-year, part-time programmes were comparable to the equivalent offered directly by University of Ulster and London Guildhall University.
The directors of both Hong Kong-based programmes said the assessment exercise was unfair.
But, Nichola Channon, head of operations at the QAA's Institutional Review Directorate, said that China was a rapidly growing market and that higher institutions in the UK were naturally tempted to expand too quickly. 'When UK universities are using a third party to deliver a programme, their control over what happens decreases. We want them to be careful [with these collaborations] and we also want to make sure that Chinese students are getting the right standard,' she said.
The report criticised the University of Ulster's monitoring of the programme delivered by the Hong Kong College of Technology at the SCAU in Guangzhou, saying this was accomplished mainly through its links with the college. It claimed the university had not specified its expectations and responsibility for the programme's standards. Concern was also raised over students' English language proficiency before they joined the programme.
However, the college said the worries were ill-founded. The QAA had last visited the SCAU six months before the programme began in September 2000, said college principal Chan Cheuk-hay, and only the college itself - which offers the same degree programme for Hong Kong students - was visited in the audit exercise last year.
'The teachers, teaching hours, curriculum and assessment for both of the programmes in Hong Kong and Guangzhou are the same. Students of the two programmes are also found to be of comparable standard,' he said.
In response to the audit, the University of Ulster set up an English language learning centre at SCAU last year to boost mainland students' English to the required standard.
Problems were also identified with the assessment mechanism and the division of responsibilities for the programme delivered in Hong Kong by the HKMA.
Auditors criticised the absence of coursework in the assessment, contrary to the London Guildhall University's practice in its domestic programme. The students' projects were described as 'well-executed' but 'showed little evidence of research and critical evaluation'.
Dr Tony Wo Chak-ming, senior manager of the HKMA and director of the programme, said it was unfair to compare the two programmes because they were tailored for students with different needs. The HKMA had collaborated with overseas universities on more than 20 different degree programmes, he added.
A spokesman for the Education and Manpower Bureau said comments in the audit report were, on the whole, positive.
'The audit is an exchange between the QAA and the institutions rather than about criticisms. We also appreciate that the universities are given the chance to give feedback on the reports,' he said.