Australian unis should take responsibility for corrupt practices in international education

International students provide universities with a large chunk of their revenue - but at what cost? Faungg/Flickr, CC BY-SA

The higher education sector has become increasingly reliant on income from fee-paying international students since Australian universities first entered foreign markets in 1986, a new report from the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption says.

From 1988-2014, the number of international students at Australian universities increased 13-fold. These students now comprise 18% of the student population in NSW universities, and often exceed 25%.

In many business schools, this percentage is substantially higher. The need to generate revenue has often conflicted with the obligation to ensure academic quality and integrity. However, to date, the “blame” for declining standards has tended to rest with international students themselves rather than educational institutions or the sector more broadly.

The range of corruption issues that has emerged suggests standards have indeed been compromised. These include: falsification of entry documents, cheating in English language proficiency tests, online contract cheat sites selling assignments or providing the means for so-called “file sharing”, widespread plagiarism, and cheating and fraud in examinations.

It is widely known by all stakeholders in the sector that a significant number of international students for whom English is an additional language struggle to meet the linguistic and academic demands of their courses.

It is also widely known that international students are burdened with additional pressures relating to culture, finance, family and peer groups.

The My Master cheating scandal uncovered a website international students were using to purchase essays. Shutterstock

While cheating is certainly not limited to international students, they are particularly vulnerable to the brazen marketing tactics of a burgeoning cheating industry which has the capacity to infiltrate social media, university email systems and message boards. This occurs both on campus and online.

International students are easy targets for unscrupulous businesses advertising “assistance” with assignments and exams. They are striving to make sense of the new academic environment and often have inadequate English or poor educational preparation. They may also have entered the system with false credentials, or may have come from cultures more accepting of practices that we would regard as corrupt.

The media have been at the forefront in exposing cheating and plagiarism scandals by international students. The recent MyMaster investigation revealed the widespread use of cheat sites. In this case, Chinese students could purchase ready-made essays on a given topic.

The resulting public outcry has, at times, been little more than thinly veiled racism. International students have been blamed for declining academic standards, while the higher education sector has not been held to account.

The recently released ICAC NSW report has turned its attention to the role of universities in enabling and facilitating corrupt practices.

The report suggests that Australian universities were not well prepared to enter the international student market. This lack of preparation had long-reaching and most often negative consequences.

The report says competition for international students has led universities to:

  • aggressively market for international students without considering the associated costs and risks
  • set inappropriately low English language requirements
  • rely on largely unregulated agents with inducements to submit applications from insufficiently qualified students or, worse, to submit fraudulent applications
  • establish offshore partnerships without the necessary due diligence
  • set recruitment KPIs, reinforced by financial incentives, with no accountability for quality or resulting pressures on academic workloads
  • leave the burden of maintaining standards with teaching academics, while simultaneously pressuring them to pass work of insufficient quality and turn a blind eye to misconduct.

ABC TV’s Four Corners expose, “Degrees of Deception”, validated every one of ICAC’s conclusions. The program gave voice to the desperation of many academics. Their life work of teaching has been undermined by an environment that has little to do with education and more to do with revenue raising.

Tales of being forced to change grades, ignore incomprehensible English, pass plagiarised assignments and manage their own and students’ rising stress levels characterised the interviews.

It is apparent that corruption has seeped into every aspect of the higher education sector, from admissions all the way through to graduation. The information shared on Four Corners will no doubt come as a shock to the average family. For those of us in higher education, this isn’t news.

Rather than become despondent and accept the status quo, positive moves are afoot. ICAC has provided a list of “12 corruption prevention initiatives” to counter problems that have been

created by a university’s reliance on revenues from international students who struggle to meet the academic standards of the university that recruited them.

These revolve around relationships with partners and agents, marketing and financial strategies, risk, due diligence, accountability of international offices, governance strategies and admissions.

While no specific “initiative” was provided in relation to setting minimum English language requirements, this issue underpinned the whole report. It notes that:

of all the reasons cited to the Commission, low English-language proficiency was the most common basis given for international students engaging in academic misconduct.

It is evident that universities ignore this fact at their peril.

Thirty years after entering foreign markets, the Australian higher education sector is beginning to recognise that a short-sighted and ill-planned grab for revenue has had long-reaching and potentially disastrous effects on academic standards, integrity and reputation.

ICAC has provided a number of useful recommendations. These make clear the responsibility of universities, not students, for rectifying these issues.

Read more of The Conversation’s coverage of Academic dishonesty in Australia here.