Just hours after JD.com’s billionaire founder Richard Liu was arrested in the United States last August, the Internet exploded.
Mugshots of the 46-year-old – accused of rape by an undergraduate – were splashed everywhere, especially on Chinese social media platforms, while speculation over who the alleged victim was or how Liu’s wife would respond ran rife.
It was only last month (July) that Liu was exonerated by newly-released evidence.
For all that brouhaha, people were clearly less interested in what Liu was doing in the city of Minneapolis, Minnesota, miles away from home.
He was there as a student of the Carlson School of Management to complete an American residency under his US-China business administration doctorate programme.
But the bigger story is this: Liu is part of a growing number of top Chinese executives chasing academic credentials, even as they stand at the pinnacle of wealth and success.
A booming industry
As a partnership with the prestigious Tsinghua University School of Economics and Management, Carlson’s programme is geared towards high-level executives in China.
Its past graduates include the executive manager of the world’s largest distiller Kweichow Moutai and the head of fintech giant Ant Financial – high-fliers in the Chinese business world looking to beef up their already-colourful resumes with additional academic credentials.
Liu, too, is one of them.
After all, China is big on education. As Wang Huiyao, founder of the Centre for China and Globalisation, a think tank that advises the government, put it in a recent article: “If you have a better degree and better education you get more recognition. China pays more attention to education.”
The motivation may also be something deeper. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs in psychology asserts that the highest level of fulfilment for most individuals lies in self-actualisation, or the desire to become the best possible version of oneself – in line with the Confucius way of life-long learning and constant self-renewal.
Whatever the reason, demand for higher education among China’s top executives has been on the rise, and foreign institutions have flooded the space, offering postgraduate doctoral degrees (PhDs) and Executive Master of Business Administration (EMBAs) programmes to those who have already “made it”.
The Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business in Beijing, for instance, has been popular among famous entrepreneurs, while the Singapore Management University has partnered with the Shanghai Jiaotong University and Zhejiang University to issue Doctor of Administration (DBA) programmes in the country.
Data from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development showed that while the US had the most number of doctoral graduates, China was nowhere near.
For schools, that huge gap represents an enormous market with untapped potential.
The counterfeit problem
Amid red-hot demand, the higher education business in China has become highly-profitable and attractive.
Cue the fakes.
In 2010, former president of Microsoft China Tang Jun drew backlash when science writer Fang Zhouzi said he had never earned a doctorate from the California Institute of Technology as previously claimed.
Tang denied having made the claim, and said he received his PhD at the California-based Pacific Western University – which Fang went on to note was categorised as a diploma mill by a 2004 US General Accounting Office Report, and not acknowledged by the Chinese Ministry of Education.
Tang’s Pacific Western University degree was later found to have cost US$2,595, with no classroom instruction required.
The news sparked discussion over academic fraud in China, but did little to deter other executives in their pursuit of academic accreditation.
In fact, all of this has only fuelled plagiarism-related scandals, even those implicating top Chinese political figures, and a “black market” in academic ghost-writing.
But the good news is that China has since embarked on a massive clean-up, closing down as many as 234 Sino-foreign education partnerships not recognised by the Education Ministry. Most of them were merely looking to cash in on the market, offering programmes of poor quality.
For foreign universities that want a piece of this pie, it all boils down to the quality of programmes.
Having a credible line-up of teachers and programmes is key to battling cynicism and competition in the market. Equally important is the need to find good partners who are interested in providing real education, rather than making a fast buck.
There are big gains to be made in China’s higher education scene, though only if one can build a good brand on solid ground.
 Abraham Maslow’s theory posits that humans are motivated by five basic levels of needs: physiological, safety, love and belonging, esteem, and self-actualisation. Self-actualisation sits at the top of the hierarchy.