The Office of the Ombudsman has criticised the Education Bureau for lacking any regulatory mechanism over non-local academic institutions.

The Ombudsman launched an investigation into the matter after reports in 2015 alleged that Lifelong College had forged documents or backdated the registration of some students to enable the premature awarding of academic qualifications. The practice effectively enabled them to sell illegitimate degrees.

The College partnered with universities in the Philippines in running remote doctoral degree programmes.

Lifelong College
Lifelong College. Photo: Facebook.

Alex Lee Ye-lick, the supervisor and principal of the Lifelong College, resigned from the Lingnan University Council following the incident.

The Education Bureau and the police both launched investigations. The police investigation is still underway but no one has been charged. Lifelong College changed its Chinese name in August last year while keeping its English name.

The Ombudsman said in a report that the Education Bureau’s current regulatory mechanism is “seriously inadequate.”

It said the bureau does not conduct any regular or surprise inspections of operators’ premises, and it has not devised any monitoring procedures specifically for detecting falsification.

It pointed out that there was no requirement for operators to keep relevant documents. New conditions of registration were added during the Ombudsman’s investigation. However, the additional conditions were not imposed on courses already registered.

Lack of tools

The Ombudsman also said the Education Bureau does not have enough legal means and enforcement guidelines at its disposal, even after an operator is found to have engaged in fraudulent activities.

Ombudsman Connie Lau
Ombudsman Connie Lau. Photo: GovHK.

The report said the Non-local Courses Registry of the Education Bureau received 87 complaints between January 2011 and October 2016, yet it only sent two warning letters, made four prosecutions, and none of the courses’ registrations were cancelled.

The Ombudsman recommended that the bureau should devise a mechanism for periodic surprise inspections, work with the Department of Justice to impose additional conditions on existing courses, and consider amending the Non-local Higher and Professional Education (Regulation) Ordinance and the Education Ordinance.

The bureau should also devise enforcement guidelines so that it will be clear when the bureau can step in and cancel the registrations.

The Education Bureau said it will follow the suggestions.

Kris Cheng is a Hong Kong journalist with an interest in local politics. His work has been featured in Washington Post, Public Radio International, Hong Kong Economic Times and others. He has a BSSc in Sociology from the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Kris is HKFP's Editorial Director.