In October 2014, the Ministry of Education of the People’s Republic of China ("MoE") publicly  revoked the approval of 246 existing Sino-foreign cooperative education programs and institutions below undergraduate degree level.1 This, and other MoE issued reports, opinions and  actions, indicate MoE's desire to tighten supervision over joint programs and institutions in order to better address its concerns regarding the quality of such programs and institutions. In short, MoE is engaging in a major house-cleaning exercise.

One example of the MoE's desires to tighten supervision can be shown in its recent opinions, the  MoE's Opinions on Further Strengthening Quality Assurance Work related to Sino-Foreign Cooperative  Institutions for Higher Education issued on 10 December 2013 (the "Opinions"). In the Opinions, the  MoE placed the emphasis on strengthening quality supervision with respect to Sino-foreign  cooperative educational institutions and programs, and described some of the means by which they  would bring about this goal. In particular, the MoE specified that:

  1. a regular evaluation system, along with quality certification standards and mechanisms for  joint programs and/or institutions shall be developed and perfected;
  2. the examination and approval procedures for joint programs and institutions with no legal  person status shall be simplified and streamlined;
  3. strict restrictions will be imposed on joint programs and institutions with average performance levels, foreign institutions with multiple joint venture  schools in China and schools that offer majors that are relatively oversupplied in China;
  4. institutions or programs that: (i) violate national education policies and relevant laws  and regulations; (ii) fail to satisfy education requirements and standards imposed by law; (iii)  fail to contribute the education resources as agreed in Sino-foreign cooperative education  institute/program agreements; or (iv) fail to pass the quality evaluation, shall be strictly  investigated, a time limitation for rectification imposed, and where the circumstances are very  serious, enrolment shall cease or its approval shall be revoked.

Another example comes from existing regulations, which provide that a foreign university with an  existing joint program or institute approved by the MoE must provide an evaluation report conducted by the MoE or its designee upon application for a new program. This suggests that the MoE will apply stricter criteria when approving new programs or  institutions. Additionally, based on anonymous telephone enquiries with the MoE, foreign universities that are already offering an  approved, degree-level joint program, may not apply for a new venture until their current program  has (i) had one class successfully graduate from the program and (ii) such program has undergone an inspection by the MoE.

Additionally, the MoE in a separate report (the MoE Brief (2014) 58th Issue) once again stressed  its focus on the quality of joint programs and institutions and MOE's aim to strengthen evaluation. According to the brief, the MoE has conducted regular evaluations on joint programs and  institutions at an undergraduate level or above since 2013, and has recently started evaluation of  the higher technical and vocational education levels. The MoE specified in the brief that during  2013's national evaluation, 88 programs ceased operations due to failure to satisfy the evaluation  standards (note that this is approximately ten (10) percent of the total undergraduate and above  joint programs or institutions).

As demonstrated by the MoE's Opinions, briefs and recent actions relating to joint programs and  institutions including the recent revocation of hundreds of approvals, we believe that the MoE will  continue to step up its regulation of joint programs or institutions going forward. However, it  should be noted that although the MoE has revoked approvals for numerous joint programs and  institutions, the MOE's approach is to curtail new enrollments, with a policy to allow all enrolled  students to complete their programs.

Given the MoE's current stance towards joint programs and institutions, foreign educational  institutions that wish to engage in cooperative operation of programs or institutions with  Chinese  partners will need to focus more on enhancing the quality of the educational services they provide  and should bear in mind that any such programs or institutions will be subject to stricter  evaluation and scrutiny going forward.

At this point, it is unclear whether the MoE will issue any new regulations in this area. However,  there is speculation that the MoE has circulated the evaluation criteria to its provincial branches  internally, perhaps preparing the ground for new regulations, but in any event, the trajectory of  the MoE towards stepping up controls on the quality of Sino-foreign educational programs and institutions is clear.