Madam Xiao Weihong was eager to get her son a place at a good university, despite his poor grades. So she jumped at the chance when a friend suggested a way he could get backdoor admission into a Beijing university.
After a year in an affiliated preparatory school, he could be transferred to the main campus, the friend said. But this was a secret arrangement that Madam Xiao must keep to herself. "We believed our friend because his nephew was in on the same plan.
And because we were told it was a secret, that even the university would not admit it existed, it was hard for us to verify the information," she told The Straits Times.
Madam Xiao, who runs a meat-processing firm in Inner Mongolia, forked out more than 260,000 yuan (S$57,000) in 2011 to a firm recommended by the friend that would help work out the details.
But after months of waiting for an acceptance letter, she started to smell a rat: It seemed like the prep school did not even exist.
Madam Xiao, 49, like many other parents and students, are being scammed by a rising number of fake universities in China.
With deceptive names similar to or claiming affiliation to real, well-known universities, these unaccredited schools often enrol students in sophisticated online scams, complete with fraudulent websites filled with curriculum information and photos.
Some 210 of these schools - with names like Capital University of Finance and Economics and Beijing Foreign Trade Institute - were recently exposed after higher education firm sdaxue.com published a list of fake schools on its website.
This is 60 more than the year before.
These pseudo universities, almost half of which are in the capital Beijing, are not authorised by the Education Ministry and issue degrees that are not recognised by many employers. Many also cheat students by having them pay tuition and various fees online and then going silent on them.
Degree mills are not unique to China. Singapore has also had to tackle them, and set up the Council for Private Education in 2009 to regulate the industry after it was hit by several scandals.
But the perceived difference a degree can make in the modern Chinese job hunt has led some students to willingly enrol at such schools - both at home and abroad - as a means of obtaining an easy "degree".
These qualifications from unaccredited Beijing- based universities cost from 950 yuan to 2,200 yuan and can be delivered within three days, according to a Beijing News report.
Local media reports also note that 95 per cent of those graduating from unaccredited American universities are Chinese citizens, many of them from rich families or even officials seeking out fake degrees to bolster their credentials and get a promotion.
Ms Zheng Baowei, 42, whose son is sitting the gaokao, the national university entrance exam, in two years, told The Straits Times that while a university education is important as a stepping stone, she is against buying a degree.
"Unless it's a degree from a very specialised school, having a paper degree now is not much use in finding a job as there are more than seven million graduates every year," she said.
"Companies are also more professional now and can tell if degrees are fake."
Experts say apart from demand from those seeking easy degrees, the rise of fraudulent universities can be attributed to insufficient government regulation and a culture of guanxi - or personal connections - that has led many to be less sceptical about backdoor channels.
Renmin University education expert Cheng Fangping added that there is also a lack of intellectual protection (IP) awareness.
"The legitimate universities are not taking legal action even though their names are being used illegally," he said. "The problem is that the cost of IP violation is too low; there should be harsher penalties for these violators."
While the Education Ministry issues a list of accredited universities every year, Professor Cheng added that many students are unaware of this and the government should create an authoritative platform to disseminate information.
But Madam Xiao considers herself one of the lucky ones. She managed to get her money back after repeatedly visiting the firm and threatening to cause a scene. Her son also secured a place in a university in Inner Mongolia after sitting the gaokao again.
"Our main lesson from this is not to take shortcuts in life," she said. "Not everything can be solved with money."
This article was first published on June 02, 2015.
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