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University faces scandal over exam surrogacy

By Li Lei | China Daily | Updated: 2024-01-15 09:00
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Leaked documents published recently have led to questions around the legitimacy of some online degree programs, after it was revealed that the Guangzhou Open University in Guangdong province had more than 2,000 people use surrogates to sit their exams for them in 2022.

The university offers a wide variety of degree programs and is popular among workers hoping to gain further accreditation to increase their future job prospects.

The revelation has shed light on the potential scope of cheating in the country's adult education system, while also reigniting debates around "degree inflation", whereby workers try to accrue as many accreditations as possible to become more competitive in the job market.

Shangyou News, a website owned by Chongqing Daily, on Thursday published documents from the university about an internal probe conducted in 2022, which said the university had serious exam management flaws.

Administrators working at six of its testing sites — which are tasked with organizing admission and final exams on behalf of the university — had not fulfilled their duties in invigilating exams and warding off cheating.

Some even assisted surrogate examinees in evading facial recognition and other pretest identification procedures, the website reported.

One testing site was singled out for the severity of the problem, testing a total of 2,831 examinees in 2022, out of which 2,093 were surrogates.

"Many people attending such programs are just trading money for a degree," commented one user on microblogging platform Sina Weibo, in reference to the widespread stereotype for adult education. "That explains why such degrees are less recognized."

Another Sina Weibo user commented, "The problem is likely to be more widespread than the documents have revealed."

In a terse statement on Saturday addressed to Shangyou News, Guangzhou Open University welcomed the outlet's expose as a form of oversight, adding that a vice-president of the college who oversaw such affairs and the person in charge of the singled-out testing site were sacked following the probe.

The branch also said it had punished two other staff members with pay cuts and criticized six others.

Students found to have been involved with using surrogates will have their scores nullified, it said.

"The testing site in question has since been suspended from organizing admission and other exams, and since 2023, no students have been admitted on campus through it," the Guangzhou institution said in the statement.

The Open University of China is a central part of China's adult education system, which is increasingly relying on online courses to help employees further their education in a competitive job market. The OUC operates a handful of campuses in Beijing while cooperating with local educational departments to form a nationwide system of open universities, and the Guangzhou-based institution is considered a local branch of the OUC.

Compared with mainstream higher learning institutions that enroll high school graduates via the gaokao, the closely scrutinized national college entrance exam, the Open University of China and its like usually have a much lower threshold for recruitment, which makes test scores the most important criteria in assessing if a student is up to degree standard.

Though degrees offered by online course providers have the same worth as mainstream universities, holders of such degrees usually face discrimination in the workplace, despite the growing popularity of adult education as a fast lane toward better academic credentials.

In 2022, more than 28 million Chinese enrolled in adult education, compared with just 2.1 million in 2016, according to the Ministry of Education.

Gao Meng quit his job as a programmer in Beijing last month and is currently on the lookout for a new one. The 28-year-old holds a bachelor's degree in environmental engineering from the Harbin Institute of Technology, a first-tier college in Northeast China's Heilongjiang province.

However, as he dug into recruitment advertisements, Gao found that his academic background was barely enough to outshine his competitors for some positions.

"Degree inflation is now even serious in the tech industry, which is much more experience-oriented compared with other walks of life," he said.

Gao said he is looking into attending an adult learning program and acquiring a master's degree, which he believes could give him an edge in the job market while he keeps working.

"Though such degrees are not as well-recognized as full-time degree programs, they are better than nothing," he said.

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