The New South Wales Independent Commission Against Corruption has exposed unfair practices by Australian universities seeking to recruit international students. Their higher tuition bills are growing revenue for universities as they are accepted at ever-increasing rates.
From 1988 to 2014, the number of international students at Australian universities multiplied thirteen-fold. International students are now 18% of the population in NSW universities, and sometimes more than 25%. Business schools have even higher percentages. This supports about 130,000 jobs, writes Julie Hare of The Australian, and 17% of university income.
Often, these international students, rather than the institutions, are blamed for declining standards at Australian schools. According to the report, however, the institutions deserve most of the blame.
Students have falsified entry documents, cheated on English proficiency tests, purchased assignments, plagiarized, and cheated on exams to gain entry. A portion of students, writes Lisa Visentin of the Sydney Morning Herald, have a score of 4.5 on the International English Language Testing System, when the recommended minimum score for university entry is a 7. Even so, agents knowingly refer them to universities.
It’s a problem with very real consequences: in 2009, nurse Bhavesh Shah, who had graduated from the University of Western Sydney, fed an elderly patient a cup of dish soap because he hadn’t been able to read the label. Shah failed the English language test six times even after becoming a registered nurse.
According to the report by ICAC, Australian universities were not prepared for the international student market, leading to pervasive problems. Universities have aggressively marketed themselves to international students without considering risks, set English language requirements too low, relied on unregulated agents who submit fraudulent applications or applications from insufficiently qualified students, set financial incentives for recruitment, and left the work of keeping up with standards to professors who are also pressured to pass these students and ignore misconduct.
The ICAC report said:
Without exception, all universities contacted by the Commission had experienced instances of agents submitting false documentation, assisting students to corruptly pass admission processing or attempting to bribe staff to approve certain student applications.
In (one) university, the incentive for sales staff was to enroll as many students as the university could accommodate, knowing that once the students were enrolled, any weaknesses in their language or academic abilities would be dealt with by the faculty rather than the international student office. Indeed, there was no disincentive to international student office sales staff to accept borderline or underqualified students.
Professors reported being forced to change grades, slog through incomprehensible English, and ignore plagiarism. Tim Dodd of the Financial Review quotes Professor Paul Frijters of the University of Queensland, who spoke in a documentary about the issue:
We’ve got to pass the vast majority of students no matter what their level is, no matter what their prior knowledge is, no matter how much or how little effort they put in.
Gigi Foster, a University of NSW economist, surveyed international students’ academic performance in 2010. She said:
There’s an assumption that we need to rely on intermediaries to recruit students. But if you look at the very best universities overseas, such as Harvard or Yale, the admissions processes are the same for all students whether they are international or domestic, and that process is much more detailed and nuanced.
The ICAC has published a list of “12 corruption prevention initiatives” to deal with these problems, writes Tracey Bretag of The Conversation. Additionally, the federal education department is drafting a national code for best practices when it comes to education agents. Among other things, universities are asked to terminate corrupt agents, develop an industry-wide quality assurance plan, and provide information on which agents recruit academically successful students and which don’t.