Parents warned to check on university place 'consultants'

Parents have been warned to check up on expensive 'consultants' who say they can get their child into a prestigious university

PUBLISHED : Monday, 22 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 22 October, 2012, 5:42am

As global competition for places at top universities intensifies, more parents are seeking help to boost their children's chances, with some tempted to secure places through the back door.

Jane Welsh, managing director of the UK-based educational consultancy Oxbridge Application, revealed that she was asked by one Asian parent whether it would help with his child's application if they donated money to a college.

"I said, 'no'," Welsh said. "It would do the opposite, because universities in the UK are so well-regulated they would know why the student was accepted."

A recent American lawsuit revealed that Gerald Chow King-sing, executive director of Chow Sang Sang Holdings in Hong Kong, paid a former Harvard professor US$2.2 million (HK$15.5 million) to allegedly improve his two sons' prospects of entering the Ivy League institution.

Chow and his wife, accusing the ex-professor of fraud and breach of contract, alleged they had been told that some of the money would be donated to elite universities, which would be seen as "greasing the admission wheels".

Welsh stressed that Oxford and Cambridge universities were trying to be as open as possible and were keen to give everyone a fair chance of getting in.

"It can be tempting to think [the two universities] are extremely posh, but they are not any more," Welsh said. "In England, they have worked very hard to change that and I think it's possibly hard for them to change that [image] outside of England. It takes a lot of time and resources to change thinking."

Attempts to buy places are also happening at boarding school level. A representative of a private boarding school in North America said she had been approached months ago by mainland agents who said some parents were interested in making donations to the school before the admissions process. "I simply turned it down. I have learned to just say no to agents," she said. However, she said, she had heard agents say some boarding schools would accept donations.

The educational consultancy business is growing, with some consultants said to be charging in the region of US$100,000.

Doris Davis, former associate provost for admissions and enrolment at Cornell University in the United States, now runs her own consultancy and travels to Hong Kong three times a year to meet potential clients and help families navigate the college application process.

"More parents globally and in the US are getting help," Davis said. She said the number of consultants had increased over the years. But she warned parents against being misled. "There are so many people who can make false claims about their background. Parents need to ask tough questions about the credentials of that individual, the same tough questions as when you are considering any large investment," Davis said.

To maximise students' chances of being accepted by top American universities, Davis helps them establish good study habits, develop good relationships with their teachers, who will write letters of recommendations for their college applications, and become active participants in class.