Universities, corruption, and standards: It’s not just academic anymore

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Australia as a whole seems finally to be taking serious notice of the sorts of trends that some of us academic economists have been rattling the chain about for years in regard to academic standards, university corruption, and international students.

ABC Four Corners will be airing a show entitled “Degrees of Deception” on Monday evening that will feature interviews with many academics, including myself and Paul Frijters, another frequent poster to this board.  You can view the trailer for the show here and written teaser here.

The New South Wales Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) has issued a report summarized in the media release here acknowledging the potential for corruption and falling standards in the higher education sector as a result of universities’ dependence on international students for revenue.

Particularly after the MyMaster scandal broke last year, there has been increasing coverage of these matters elsewhere in the popular press (e.g., here and here), and editors at The Australian tell me they are putting together a lead article on the topic for publication on Monday.

Will this be enough to generate the political will to address these problems in Australian higher education systematically, competently, and with independent oversight?

12 Responses to "Universities, corruption, and standards: It’s not just academic anymore"
  1. If I would have to bet, I would bet against it. Money talks. And the academic-managerialism beast wants to be fed. There will be lots of words (” … we are committed to maintaining the highest academic standards in our global engagements … “), continued intransparency (” … we would like to decline the offer to commnet … “), and few actions. As almost always.

  2. I doubt falling standards are strongly correlated with the proportion of overseas students — there is far too much focus on them. For example, most social sciences and arts departments have almost no overseas students, but it never stopped standards from falling. Similarly, various online alternatives Aus universities offer have almost no overseas students, yet they are often of a very low quality too. The reason standards have dropped is because basically this was what the government wanted even if they won’t explicitly say so — clearly they wanted large numbers of students edumacated cheaply and scape-goats needed to be found for the consequences. It is worthwhile noting here that overseas students in courses like engineering probably actual help the standards given Australians become worse and worse at maths thanks in part to gaming of the high-school system.

    Apart from quality, if you look at plagiarism, it’s rife and there are systems in place to basically force academics to look past it. For example, almost every university now has next to meaningless student satisfaction surveys that only a small percentage of the students fill in. If your university takes these seriously (and many do for things like promotion), then if you ever catch/punish anyone for plagiarism, then they will give you poor scores on these evaluations and form a large proportion of the small proportion of students that fill these things in. So apart from wasting huge amounts of time, you will also be punished for catching it when it looks like students don’t like your course because 5 out of 10 people that filled the rating scale in wanted to get you back for catching them. So these paper-mills are really a very minor problem, it’s just that’s what got into the media.

  3. It would be useful if there was an index of the quality of international students similar to ATAR. If an institution cuts its ATAR by about a third it is a strong indication what is happening with domestic students (even with gaming of ATARs). But there is nothing that can be used to monitor what is happening with international students. Though my guess is that the quality of international students (academically and in terms of English) has been declining at at least some institutions making them more likely to plagiarize/use essay mills etc.

    Descriptive statistics on the distribution of the English language scores by course could be a start. Though (for general interest) more descriptive statistics on the distribution of ATARs would be valuable too (quantiles for example).

    • David,
      I completely agree that judging the quality of incoming cohorts of international students is fraught. A primary problem underpinning Australia’s struggles with international student recruitment and evaluation is that our higher education admissions process is designed for a situation in which Australian universities are educating students who went to high school in Australia (and, more exactly, in the same state as the university to which the student is applying). How to introduce and fund a proper admissions process – one that is harder to game due to requiring applicants to submit things like reference letters and personal essays, and that also involves the input of academics who will actually be teaching these people in the classroom if they are admitted and decide to come – has been a question in my mind for years.

      • Hi Gigi,
        I guess I was thinking that by requiring universities to publish by course (particularly courses with substantial numbers/proportions of international students) the distribution (or greater information on the distribution) of performance on English tests and other information (if it exists) this might at least provide some information on what institutions are and have been doing.

        Although this wouldn’t be informative if students were gaming or bypassing the English tests on a large scale.

        I agree with your characterisation of the problem – though I also have a feeling that internal governance used to work in a way in the past that meant these problems were less acute. However, and particularly outside the Group of 8 universities, it doesn’t seem internal governance can be relied on in the same way that might have been possible in the more distant past possibly due to more serial/career senior administrators (rather than academics who took on these roles temporarily before returning to teaching/research roles) or else the competitive position has got a lot worse outside of the Group of 8 as well…

        • David, most universities use the IELTS and have different levels for undergraduate and postgraduate courses. You should be able to look it up on many universities websites if you are interested. The problem is not really always the poor English scores, since even high IELTS scores don’t mean they will be able to write perfectly (many locals can’t either), it is that many places take them and don’t provide enough additional resources to help them despite the obvious problems.

          If you want look at the quality of students going in that are not internationals, then the newspapers publish the TERs of courses each year, one the “official” clearly-in mark, and the second the special entry one. If you see values in the special entry of 20%+ that generally means they take more or less anyone. In VIC, these universities will accept more or less anyone into some unpopular courses (e.g., teaching, Arts, …) as special entry: Deakin, Swinburne, Aus Catholic University, VUT, and La Trobe — ACU, VUT, and Deakin accept more or less anyone into most of their courses as far as I am aware, Swinburne has online courses that accept anyone, and La Trobe I think also starts accepting anyone to stop going broke. I think that only leaves Melbourne and Monash which have some entry standards although they have lowered theirs also.

          The problem again isn’t really accepting these students, the problem is having no resources (far less than for OS students) to help those with poor literacy and numeracy which many will have if you accept anyone.

          • Hi Conrad, thanks for this information which is very interesting. But I can imagine at some point it becomes worse than not being able to write well and this is probably where plagiarism becomes a greater problem (as well as comprehending exam questions). Furthermore, students further down the TER rank and some international students possibly are more likely to have other difficulties in their lives that makes study more challenging. And doing this in a second language makes it even more difficult (I can’t really start to imagine – being merely monolingual). I can’t see how universities like those you mention could ever have the resources to deal with this situation on any scale.

          • In anticipation of increased numbers unis have built and built. Catch-22: they have to turn those assets over, so anyone with cash is welcome. On the bright side, some of the campuses will make ready-made business parks, one day. The sow’s ear could indeed become the silk purse.

  4. My experience involved working for a RTO offering Master’s level. Of course, I was told that standards were important and only competent students were selected. The RTO’s management was a shambles, and the students (all overseas), except for five out of 30, were not committed and enjoyed plagiarising. I kept voicing my concerns and eventually I was fired. This was my first and last attempt at lecturing. Those of us that were educated 30 years ago know less people went to uni, and less people got a first or two-one, hence I accept admitting more students means the courses have to be easier. In industry we talk about ‘rubbish in, rubbish out’. In business, if your quality drops you lose market-share, in education, you get more customers. Why go to a difficult uni?

    Education is big business. Whether it is a uni or private RTO, they need a surplus. Standards will keep slipping until the quality of students is properly policed before and during their education by an independent third-party, and this would involve going to the production line, not just relying on paper reports espousing compliance with this and that. To make things easy, focus on what’s required to study in an English-speaking country. I have S-E Asian friends from over thirty years ago that were uni educated in England, and they came to England speaking and writing conversational English. I met business people from across Europe who spoke fluent English. Of my students, I would say that five out of thirty had good enough English that I could chat away without worrying that I had lost them. The lecturers and reception staff complain about the level of English, so we need to give them more English lessons. Wrong! They shouldn’t be there, so give them their money back and suggest they switch to an English course. But money talks.

  5. More on the topic in The Australian today 😉 :

    “The only robust survey of international students’ academic performance was conducted by University of NSW economist Gigi Foster in 2010.

    Studying the enrolment and academic pass rates of 12,846 students in the business faculties of two universities, Foster found international students from non-English-speaking backgrounds underperform domestic students as a result of language and cultural barriers — as one would expect.

    But she also found underperformance is less pronounced when there are proportionately more international students in the class. Stunningly, she also found that classes composed almost entirely of international students would on average be 6.5 points higher than those courses comprising solely domestic students.

    The resulting furore — with universities shamelessly in denial and ferociously attacking Foster — have ensured it is unlikely any full and objective analyses of academic performance will be repeated, a situation that does not sit well with the outspoken Foster.

    “Universities don’t want to know the truth,” she says, adding that sensitivities over the potential to appear xenophobic and political correctness also prevent the sector from confronting the issues.

    Foster agrees with ICAC’s assessment that student recruitment practices through offshore agents go to the heart of the matter.

    “There’s an assumption that we need to rely on intermediaries to recruit students,” she says.

    “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.”

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