Following the Independent Commission Against Corruption’s (ICAC) report revealing dodgy practices by overseas student recruitment agents and the low literacy standards some international students get away with, the Productivity Commission has released a research paper into education services.
The paper considers, among other things, how universities meet international students’ perceived needs and expectations, and the role of government in regulating quality. It rightly recommends that “learning standards have a greater role” and that education agents should have a lesser one in student recruitment.
Profit before learning
In considering international students’ major contribution to Australia, the paper makes largely reasonable suggestions but is limited by the way the value of education is constructed. The first three subheadings focus on economic impact, competition and the sector’s “high-growth trajectory”.
It is unsurprising that many students exhibit a strong “user pays” attitude to their education. A degree from a prestigious university may count well above the actual learning experience for many: the learning process comes second to the outcome - a degree, a job, a reputation.
As the ICAC report said:
the quality of Australia’s international education services is […] at risk where students […] are primarily motivated by […] employment outcomes.
I have occasionally received complaints from students receiving low marks that this was “not what [we] pay for”. Imagine you are a student panicking as a deadline looms because you know your linguistic or critical skills are weak. Your intensely desired aim is to further yourself professionally, so why not sacrifice your scruples and just buy an essay?
Educators have to prioritise learning over economic aspects, but policy makers devising research papers into international education services also need to emphasise aspects beyond perceived “productivity” – like the cultural, social and ethical values of education.
If the central role of such aspects is underplayed, then it is likely that academic honesty, and the value attached to learning to think independently and critically, will continue to decline while the “high-growth trajectory” arcs overhead.
The problems lie with the education sector’s seduction by profit, and an uncritical respect for the concept of growth.
Most of the international students I have met are honest and ethical. Accidental plagiarism is not uncommon, but overt cheating is rare in my experience and usually due to desperation. Many of these students don’t speak English very well. Nor can than read it or write it. They cannot understand very much of what is said in lectures.
Yet they have been accepted to study in Masters programs in an English-speaking university, having received the requisite score in their International English Language Testing System (IELTS) assessment – or have they?
Recently I mentioned to one of my students that his work did not reflect his IELTS marks. He told me pityingly, “Oh, Dr Katz, you can buy anything in Beijing.” Other students may have been given unrealistic expectations by unscrupulous agents - as noted by the Productivity Commission – and there are other methods for rorting the admissions system.
Assuring quality learning
To make sure quality learning is taking place inside universities, money needs to be spent on increasing the ratio of staff to students, and on hiring permanent staff who have a vested interest in their students and institution. Casual staff, whose numbers are on the rise, have no reason to have more than minimal involvement with their students.
Why would you spend time in consultation with students who are struggling, or add to your marking load by checking suspected incidences of plagiarism, then undergo the time-consuming administrative processes of reporting it, when you may not even have a job next semester?
Once students have arrived in Australia, in-house language support may prove insufficient to the task of assisting those with a low or poor grasp of English or academic honesty.
Universities should make students sit a brief academic literacy test on arrival, thus establishing a strong financial deterrent for candidates making false claims about their abilities.
Over the years I have sat with many weeping students terrified of the reception they will receive when they return home with low marks – never mind failures. A student once threatened legal action for failing an essay she submitted when it was clearly written by another.
I once spent a terrible hour with a young woman from China who told me flatly that she saw no point in continuing her life under these circumstances.
Another wrote a particularly incomprehensible essay sighed philosophically, “It’s ok, I am cash cow”. She could barely construct a sentence in English, but she knew her function.
Education is a service that requires some government oversight, yes, but also support in the form of funding to reduce the pressure to turn education into a commodity. The report from the Productivity Commission reports on the consequences of this monetised view of education, but does little to dispel it.