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Biased reports on international students not helpful

Have cheating and plagiarism increased in universities as a symptom of more international students or just of more students? Shutterstock

Monday’s Four Corners episode shed some much-needed light on longstanding problems in our higher education sector. Most importantly, it highlighted the role of some dodgy overseas education agents and the apparent collusion of some universities in fraudulent recruitment schemes for international students.

Pressing questions were raised about the status of academic integrity in the lucrative billion-dollar business, in which Australian universities find themselves under unprecedented pressure to raise revenue. This is in a context of high demand for an Australian education experience by international students and their families.

Throughout this important story thread, unfortunately, the producers seemed unable to resist the siren song of catchy jingoism, parading background shots of nameless Asian students walking through universities while the voiceover spoke of “corruption, widespread plagiarism, cheating and exploitation”. The problems raised are real, but the tone taken does both our universities and our students a grave disservice.

Universities today, the changed context

Australian universities consistently perform very strongly in the major international rankings of universities. Many of our institutions quite rightly claim to be “world class”.

Having a strong international reputation means taking part in the international scholarly community. Students from around the world want to come to Australia to study – around a quarter of million of them. In the context of shrinking public investment in higher education, the fees these students pay are integral to university budgets.

At the same time as the expansion in international student participation has been taking place, Australia has seen very rapid growth in participation by domestic students. Around one million Australians presently attend university – double the number that attended two decades ago.

Local students, too, come from diverse backgrounds. More come from families with no experience of university education, or from families where English is not the main language spoken.

In short, the university is no longer an enclave for a small group of Anglo-Saxon elites brought up in “good families” and having attended “good schools”. When Australian universities go mass and global, diversity becomes inherent. The Four Corners episode ignored this diversity.

Higher education in Australia is now big, diverse and international. Being vigilant in eradicating poor practice when it occurs should not be conflated with hand-wringing that our domestic and international students no longer fit the norms of the “elite” era of higher education.

Cheaters and the cheated

Anecdotal evidence about plagiarism is a good example here. The program explicitly drew a link between the surge of overseas students and “the increase in plagiarism”, blaming the rising participation of international students in Australian tertiary education for falling academic standards.

It would be unsurprising if plagiarism was on the increase – more students likely means more cheating, unfortunately. But do international students plagiarise more than locals? Or are perceptions that this is the case simply an effect of increasing participation and better software? It is hard to tell.

One thing is certain though – this kind of practice is a rarity. If plagiarism is indeed widespread in some courses or some institutions, we should be shocked and it is right to call it out. However, we need to be careful in creating the impression, as Four Corners did, that this is some kind of new or predominantly Asian problem.

What was disappointing about the Four Corners episode was the disservice it did to international students by presenting them as either cheats or victims.

International students are a heterogeneous group. Their capacities, aspirations and behaviours as learners ought not to be simplified and stamped with certain stereotypes.

Deakin University education researcher Ly Tran conducted semi-structured interviews with 105 international students in 25 vocational education institutions across Australia. She found many aspired to develop their skills and knowledge so that they can advance in their chosen profession and transform their professional self.

The program’s explicit emphasis on depicting international students as strugglers with a mere motive to pass and a threat to the Australian academic standard may subsequently create an incomplete and biased imagining of international students.

Again, the claim that cheating and plagiarism occur is not contentious. That’s why we have double marking and specialised software. But what of the outstanding students that come here to study?

When an employer sees an Asian face on a person holding an Australian degree, should they be asking themselves whether this person falls in the cheat category or the victim category? What an awful disservice to these graduates.

A better way forward

The alarming message from the episode to Australian tertiary education is that institutions must think hard and act fast to protect their academic integrity against the temptation of profit-making and from sub-standard, even criminal, practices. But we need to watch out for unnecessary effects on public perceptions and treatment of international students.

The sense of feeling welcome and the sense of belonging to the learning environment and the host society is indispensable to international students’ well-being, their education experience and social integration in a foreign country.

In the cause of protecting and improving the credibility and prestige of Australian education, we must guard against parochial institutional and social stereotypes. These promote hostility to international students, especially the vast majority with genuine capacities and aspirations.

Instead, working on institutional and social conditions to improve understanding of international students’ dreams and struggles, protect their rights and enable these students to contribute to Australian academic integrity is exactly where we should start.

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

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