Tuesday, January 31st, 2012
Douglas College in British Columbia released an announcement that it has “initiated an independent review of the policies and procedures governing the college’s partnership programs in China. The announcement went on to say that its external review will “look at controls in place related to the examination process, student grades and course marks awarded in the [overseas] programs as well as the processes and structures in place for the oversight of the programs in China”.
The announcement engages a couple of intersecting issues of growing import: (1) Evaluating overseas transcripts, with China offering particular challenges and (2) overseas arrangements and the complications these entail, often cutting right to fundamental issues of trust.
My colleague, Ms. April Wang addressed an underlying issue in her recent commentary on this site in our International Roundup feature, entitled, “Dateline Beijing: Can foreign universities screen rigorously.” The substance of her commentary was to set out why institutions should take student screening more seriously.
It appears the Douglas College case (now getting national attention from a prominent television report revealing what appears to be an egregious abuse of academic integrity) from its own announcement was not about faked transcripts and rather about whether grades were dutifully earned.
The world over there are issues around students having access to confidential examination questions in advance – let us call this grade distortion, as well as the much reported phenomenon of grade inflation. These are always regrettable. But even more troubling is when either or both of these happen systemically, where in fact much of a whole class is helped along unethically.
The television exposé on Douglas’s China campuses alleges that transcripts with failing grades were simply changed to passing. Overseas arrrangments are all but doomed without a great deal of advance and ongoing diligence by the institution whose name, or at least whose credential, is the attraction. But what if the licensing institution itself is conniving in the abusive transcript practices? Where is the check on that abuse?
There is no check absent a supervisory regulatory body. In this case Douglas is subject to the regulatory oversight of a Canadian province but overseas programs are not directly inspected in the way Canadian provincial high school programs are (or are supposed to be, a blog for another day).
Canadian provinces go to great pains to approve new degrees by well-established publicly funded universities and colleges. Peculiarly, British Columbia, the very Province in question, until recently had of the strictest oversight of any Canadian province in terms of requisite English proficiency for international students entering its universities. Yet, with such care exercised within Canada, these degrees can be licensed and sold overseas without any checking on whether the degree requirements established have in any way been satisfied.
In fairness, if the allegations of systemic abuse are proven, this would not be tantamount to abuse of this kind being itself systemic within the Canadian higher education system. Most Canadian institutions are highly reluctant to dare offer studies leading to their credential even partially, leave alone, entirely abroad. But there are abuses that have permeated to some extent the Canadian higher education system, namely the offering of provincially-accredited high school programs whose own credentials reveal grade distortion and grade inflation that appears systemic in nature. Graduates of these students point mainly towards Canadian universities and colleges and it is hardly news that a significant proportion of students with Canadian high school diplomas bearing an average of 70% or even 80% are not worthy of direct entry into Canadian degree programs.