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Scamming the Youth Abroad

Agencies that serve as intermediaries for Chinese youth yearning to study abroad scraped in a collective 3 billion yuan ($362 million) last year, while employing a total of only 20,000. The growing number of Chinese aspiring to study abroad has brought a torrential downpour of profits on such companies. But the rush by the world's most populous country to get access to the world's top universities beyond its borders has also spurred opportunists and scam artists.

Pick up any newspaper and you can find advertisements on how intermediary agencies can help you find an education institution outside of China. According to statistics, China has become the world's largest exporter of students.

Last year alone, the number of Chinese students studying abroad topped 150,000, of which 80 percent handled applications and applied for visas through a hired intermediary agency. These outfits, which charge exorbitant commission fees, were included on the list of the nation’s top 10 most profitable industries in 2003. At the same time, the industry received many complaints from clients. In fact, the sector has earned the collective reputation for breaking promises.

Ugly Byproduct of Competition

Intermediary agencies are dancing in place over the soaring numbers of Chinese youth looking beyond the motherland for higher learning.

Li Dongmei of the Education Information Center (EIC) of Guangdong Province said all intermediary agencies for studying abroad are offering discounts to get a leg up, including the EIC. Li still believes the future market will be more fair and transparent, though prices are poised to drop.

But the manager with the Guangdong Project Office of the Australian International Development Program (IDP), surnamed Xie, said the IDP is not going to cut prices. Rather, Xie wants to improve quality. His company is providing more chances for students to meet with foreign universities, Xie added.

But some agencies’ poor service has led to a bumpy road abroad. This has become a real worry for student wishing to study abroad.

In April last year, a technical school graduate surnamed Li, was recommended by a Shanghai agency to Royal Columbia College (RCC) in Canada.

The school was “awe-inspiring” to Li. According to the agency, RCC has a well-known computer science program, and its quality faculty would “make you an experienced professional.” The ad was very appealing to Li, a computer major.

One member of the agency said RCC “gives international students thorough attention.” The agency boasted that the school would meet students at airport, arrange their lodgings and take them sightseeing to “realize Canada’s majestic beauty and honest hospitality.”

Another staff member added that RCC would give individual guidance to students who have difficulties in study, making their “dreams come true in Canada as soon as possible.”

Li, inexperienced and wide-eyed, flew to RCC in Canada on August 16, 2003, after paying a commission fee of 20,000 yuan ($2,415), in addition to 1,000-yuan ($121) entrance fee and 75,000 yuan ($9,058) for tuition.

Li registered at the school on September 1 only to find that RCC offered no computer science courses at all. Worse, the school collapsed financially two months later, leaving Li, who had never left China before, crushed and not knowing what to do.

Li flew back to Shanghai on January 23, 2004, the eve of the Chinese Lunar New Year.

False Advertising

There are general tactics these agencies have employed when scamming naïve students looking to study outside the country. Sometimes key facts are deliberately omitted about a given school. Agencies also might distort or exaggerate credentials of foreign technical schools, claiming, for example, it is a comprehensive university or offers courses it does not. Other lie outright, claiming a school is associated with prestigious universities when they, in fact, are not.

Or, as in the case with young Li, agencies fabricate the reality of mediocre or floundering schools abroad, knowing the prospective student has no way to corroborate the facts.

In response to complaints, the Ministry of Education and the State Administration for Industry and Commerce jointly released a model contract on commission services for study abroad.

Xu Wenzhong, a lawyer, said there are shortcomings in regulating these agencies. Authorities usually inquire into only the finances, offices and staff members of these agencies, while neglecting to assess the actual capability of providing the services they claim.

The Ministry of Education, in an effort to tighten supervision, is releasing the names of company officials who are accountable for operation failures, the addresses of office and key assets of the companies to inform the public of the risk of being cheated.

(Beijing Review  September 3, 2004) 

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