Education authorities in central China fired the head of a university for spending over 180 million yuan (S$37 million) on one-off payments for teachers sent to a university in the Philippines who earned an "instant PhD" and were then rehired to boost the school's ranking.
Peng Xilin, party secretary of Shaoyang University in Hunan province, rehired 22 teachers who went to Adamson University, a school in Manila, where they received a PhD degree after 28 months despite most PhDs taking a minimum of four years to earn.
Responding to widespread public criticism, the Hunan Provincial Education Department said on Sunday (July 24) that Shaoyang University had resorted to "inappropriate practices" in its talent strategy and Peng was fired for being "unscientific" in his decision-making and "imprecise" at work.
Shaoyang University became a centre of controversy last week after it made a public employment announcement that stated it had re-employed the teachers, raising public doubts about the quality of the degrees.
Peng's programme was criticised for the unusually short study period to obtain a PhD and a perception that the school was "obscure". However, Adamson University is considered a top school in the Philippines.
Furthermore, an additional gripe focused on the generous payment package of 850,000 yuan for each newly rehired teacher, which people said seemed inconsistent with the "real value" of their degrees.
The returned teachers all received their PhDs in education, but when they were rehired, they were deployed to jobs in various departments, including energy, sports and economics.
The Hunan provincial government said last week that it would investigate the case amid rising public pressure before announcing the recent firing of Peng.
Adamson is a private university located in Manila and was among a list of overseas universities whose degrees the Chinese education ministry vowed to "give a more careful assessment" last November.
Xiong Bingqi, director of Beijing-based 21st Century Education Research Institute, told the South China Morning Post it is not rare for Chinese universities to partner with an overseas institution to cultivate "instant PhDs" to build up their strength on paper.
For schools like Shaoyang University, which are considered mid-tier in China, it is practical to encourage current faculty to study for a doctoral degree because it is hard to recruit newcomers who already have top degrees, he noted.
"Gaining a PhD is normally time-consuming, taking four or five years regardless of if it is at a domestic or overseas university. Besides, some teachers would leave for better jobs elsewhere after getting the degree," said Xiong.
"Taking these factors into consideration, it can be a good idea for some universities to send their teaching staff to a low-ranking university overseas to gain a doctoral degree. The degree could be criticised as being of low quality, but that does not change the fact that it is a doctoral degree. Plus, most of the teachers would not jump ship after gaining the degree this way," he explained.
This not only helps the university by increasing its ratio of staff with PhDs, but it also makes the school more "international", which could improve its ranking, Xiong said.
"But all these are for the purpose of gaining instant benefit instead of really improving the quality of faculty. So this is a 'face project' to seek quick success," he said