False Advertising by Foreign Universities in China

19 Nov 2017
Author: Robert Precht

Foreign universities in China are exposing themselves to being sued for false advertising by failing to disclose that the education offered to students does not reflect the academic freedom that the schools promise. The liability of foreign universities becomes apparent when one compares the schools' advertisements with the realities of teaching and studying in China.

For example, New York University's press release announcing the creation of NYU Shanghai in 2011 states that “NYU has the discretion to determine all academic matters, including the development of curriculum, staffing of faculty, and the selection of students.” It also states “Classes will be conducted in English and in accordance with the principles of academic freedom associated with American colleges and universities.” NYU’s website has a section on academic freedom that says: “Academic freedom is essential to the free search for truth and its free expression. Freedom in research is fundamental to the advancement of truth.”

NYU is not alone in boasting about the high quality of its educational product. Duke Kunshan’s website  promises students a learning environment “that encourages the exchange of ideas both within and outside the classroom” and proclaims: “Students graduate with an undergraduate degree from Duke University, an institution consistently ranked among the top 10 U.S. universities by U.S. News & World Report.” The John Hopkins University -- Nanjing Center for Chinese and American Studies celebrated its 30th anniversary in 2016.   “Though the world may be different,” Johns Hopkins University President Ronald Daniels said, “the values on which the center was founded – academic rigor, scholarly freedom, and cultural exchange – remain as vital as ever.”  Nowhere in the various websites and press releases of NYU, Duke or Johns Hopkins is there any acknowledgement that the Communist Party restricts what can be taught or discussed.

Reading these ads, a prospective student considering studying on a China campus might reasonably assume that he or she would receive substantially the same educational product that students receive on the school's home campus -- an education informed by academic freedom.

But this expectation would be false. In fact, academic freedom has been vanishing for over a year and it has almost disappeared. According to a November 18, 2017 Financial Times article:

China’s Communist party has ordered foreign-funded universities to install Communist party units and grant decision-making powers to a party official, reversing an earlier promise to guarantee academic freedom as the party strengthens political control over all levels of education.  

More than two thousand education joint ventures between Chinese and overseas universities have been established since 2003, when they were first allowed. Some, such as New York University Shanghai or University of Nottingham Ningbo have their own campuses. Others, such as the University of Pittsburgh’s collaboration with Shanghai Jiao Tong University, operate institutes within a Chinese campus.

The clampdown on foreign universities is not a bolt out of the blue. In 2016 the U.S. Government Accounting Office issued a report about U.S. campuses in China and expressed concerns about internet censorship and self-censorship, where certain sensitive political topics—such as Tiananmen Square or China's relationship with Taiwan—were avoided in class, and of constraints faced by Chinese students in particular.  

The upshot: the reality of Communist Party restrictions on foreign universities and the downgrading of the quality of the educational product received by students appear to be much greater than foreign administrators have been willing to admit. 

Putting aside the ethics of misleading prospective students, foreign universities are also exposing themselves to grave legal risks. The United States Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is charged with enforcing truth in advertising. According to the agency’s website:

When consumers see or hear an advertisement, whether it’s on the Internet, radio or television, or anywhere else, federal law says that ad must be truthful, not misleading, and, when appropriate, backed by scientific evidence. The Federal Trade Commission enforces these truth-in-advertising laws, and it applies the same standards no matter where an ad appears – in newspapers and magazines, online, in the mail, or on billboards or buses … When the FTC finds a case of fraud perpetrated on consumers, the agency files actions in federal district court for immediate and permanent orders to stop scams; prevent fraudsters from perpetrating scams in the future; freeze their assets; and get compensation for victims.

The FTC has long regarded the omission of material information to constitute deception. Since President Xi took power in 2012, he has overseen a drastic political tightening over Chinese education institutions and reintroduced ideologically controlled curriculums within universities. A foreign school's failure to disclose to prospective students that Communist party units would be making key decisions on campus might well constitute an omission of material information.

In line with its mandate, the FTC has not hesitated to prosecute universities for false advertising. In December 2016, DeVry University agreed to pay $100 million to settle a lawsuit with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) over allegations stemming from DeVry’s advertising about the employment rates and salaries of its graduates. In other jurisdictions as well, there is a new focus on advertising by universities that can mislead students. A November 15, 2017 Guardian article reports that the UK advertising watchdog has launched a crackdown on misleading students with false claims.

Students are consumers. If they see or read an advertisement about the advantages of studying at a foreign university’s campus in China, the ad must be truthful, not misleading, and, when appropriate, supported by evidence. Not only are the schools’ advertisements unsupported by evidence. There is compelling counter-evidence disproving the schools’ claims about the quality of their academic product.