South Australia’s Independent Commissioner Against Corruption (ICAC) has undertaken a survey of university staff as part of its University Integrity Survey 2020.
Of particular note, university staff raised concern around low entry standards pertaining to international students, alongside pressure to pass failing international students and widespread cheating:
A total of 108 respondents provided comments regarding the ‘types’ of students being admitted to courses. This was typically in the context of an apparent decline in the academic ‘quality’ of students and admission into courses for which they lacked the capacity. Of these 108 respondents, 61 raised poor English skills as a critical factor in student academic struggles.
“When I first arrived at the university, in the first course I taught, I was immediately shocked 30-40% of my THIRD-year university students could not write coherently or barely at a grade 9 level. This initial experience has not worn off.”
“International students are accepted with well below the required English language proficiency in order to maintain income. The senior management refuse to engage with these issues and just accuse academics of being bad teachers when they raise it.”
“…international student fees seem to trump all standards in enrolment, assessment and grades. Lower and lower grades are required to ‘pass’ (eg 40% for a course), and serious misconduct in assessment is often ignored by senior managers as just being ‘too hard’ to deal with…There is evidently misconduct in recruitment practices, as many students are accepted into the university, ostensibly having demonstrated adequate English standards (eg IELTS 6.00 or equivalent) but when they arrive they are unable to speak functional English. There appears to be no will to meaningfully address this issue.”
“…it was made abundantly clear entry requirements weren’t important, we just needed to obtain higher enrolment figures. Staff feel as those they have to let ill-equipped students into programs despite the students won’t succeed”…
Fifty-one respondents provided negative comments relating to course admissions, while 19 provided negative comments on the recruitment of international students.
“…not allowed to reject students on the basis of English language scores. Assessment of applications was later taken away from academics and put in the hands of administrators.”
“There is a strong feeling that student enrollment is increasingly business oriented with decreasing regard to meeting absolute entry benchmarks. Inter university competition and current funding models are driving the lowering of the bar in enrollment decisions.”
“The current system of overseas recruiters (paid on commission) and internal ‘incentives’ for executive/senior staff of areas with high international student numbers is, at best, unethical (& conflict of interest) and very likely corrupt.”
As perhaps expected when considering responses that highlight pressure to recruit students, some respondents (29) described an excessive number of students and the pressure this placed on staff. Five respondents described student numbers above the levels mandated by course accreditation requirements. Ten respondents mentioned problems related to teaching practice and course accreditation requirements…
Student grades and assessment
There was a sense that teaching staff were under pressure to ensure students, and their fees, were retained. A large number of respondents (156) discussed pressure to pass students irrespective of the students’ ability, English proficiency, understanding of the subject matter or the students’ personal effort. Some described this specifically as being related to keeping international fee-paying students happy and enrolled.”
“There is pressure on people to change student grades from a fail to a pass. The students are normally international students with poor english skills.”
“There is financial pressure throughout the higher education sector to ensure that international full-fee paying students pass their coursework. This is putting pressure on Academic staff to pass students with lower than normal academic achievement. An example i was given last year was when a pass mark for an assessment was reduced from 50% to 48% and then to 46% to ensure that most students could pass.”
“I think often as lecturers we are under great pressure to keep the students ‘happy’ as if they were customers rather than people that pay to receive an education. I also think that, sometimes, the grades tend to be ‘inflated’ so that to show the high standard of the University, while students not always deserve those grades.”
“There is considerable pressure placed upon us to grade students favorably both to maintain our reputation as an institution to attract future income from students, and to ensure our own personal ‘popularity’ with respect to student teaching evaluations which form a key component of any promotion application or ongoing performance assessment.”
In addition to pressure from management to pass students, twenty-seven respondents mentioned receiving pressure from students or their families to pass courses…
In terms of pressure to pass students, 111 respondents highlighted concerns with the ‘framework’ for grades or how this framework was being implemented. This included marking to a standard curve, set pass rates, and the impact of student evaluation forms on promotion or employment opportunities for staff who teach.
“There is an ‘expectation’ that fail rates will not be above 20%. This has led to a lowering of standards over time.”
“The Student Evaluation of Teaching (SET) instrument (linked to promotion potential) puts pressure on teaching staff to inflate grades and to pass fail papers (because this sweetens students’ evaluations of teaching)…Staff holding out for high standards by only awarding high grades and passes when the papers warrant such grades are not eligible promotion because their SETs are low.”
“Course coordinators are questioned and even blamed if their course does not Thirty-three respondents provided examples of students’ grades being overwritten, or students being passed despite the original grade they received.”
“Circumstances of students obtaining fail grades that are then later changed to pass or higher grades to allow students to progress in their program.”
“Grades from academics have been overriden by senior management over concerns about high failure rates…
Sixty-nine respondents explicitly mentioned that courses or teaching had declined in quality or been made more simplistic.”
“My feeling is that there is continued downward pressure on ‘academic standards’ – we feel constant pressure to ensure that fail rates remain low in courses, and this encourages avoiding more complex or challenging course content. The pressure arises because we are funded per student and more students is then always better.”
“if students do not attend courses, fail assignments and get bad grades, academics are hauled over the coals, so the result is that academics make courses easier and increase grades so no questions are asked”…
In addition to responses describing pressure to change grades or lower assessment standards, 43 respondents discussed students cheating, with some commenting on the difficulties of effectively dealing with such conduct, and others reporting failures to adequately address academic dishonesty.
“Academic integrity issues are often not reported and not acted upon. Grades are moderated to achieve a set up goal. Cheating is a huge problem.”
“The university’s income is dependent on overseas student fees so it is reluctant to thoroughly investigate academic integrity issues relating to this cohort. Purchasing of essays prepared by a third party or paid for by students is far greater than the university wishes to admit. I have had students in my tutorial who can barely speak English and yet they are able to submit very fluent essays. Research shows that 10% of students self-report cheating in some form. I am aware that the purchase of essays is ‘big business’.”
“I’ve seen people who don’t speak English get their degrees here, despite the fact that all the teaching and all essays, are in English. It’s common knowledge that they pay to have their essays written, and we don’t do anything about it. It would be more honest to just sell them the degree in the first place. It’s a disgrace.”
Respondents provided many examples of feeling pressured to modify grades or lower the difficulty of assessment so that students did not fail. Various respondents highlighted that this may have been the case to assist those international students with limited English.
The ICAC Survey also reveals the widespread belief that the pursuit of international student dollars is corrupting universities:
The ‘corporatisation’ or ‘monetisation’ of the university was also the subject of a large volume of feedback (126 respondents). These comments typically described the university as overly focused on money, student fees and the enrolment of full fee-paying students. Seven participants also raised concerns about Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) for their university which encourage poor practices and behaviours to meet benchmarks…
“The key vulnerability the university faces is its over-reliance on international students’ fees. This impacts on potential corruption in recruitment, enrolment, assessment, academic integrity, student support, misconduct processes and graduation. It is common for senior managers to disregard problems…and make the problem one about ‘poor teaching’ or ‘low quality assessment/curriculum’.”
These are issues that MB has warned about for years, and have come about from Australia having the highest concentration of international students in the developed world:
The solution to these problems is simple:
- Lift university entry standards (especially English-language proficiency);
- Lift financial requirements; and
- Remove the link between studying, work rights and permanent residency.
These reforms will dramatically improve international student quality, will lift export revenues per student, and reduce enrolment numbers to sensible and sustainable levels.
Sadly, the industry rent-seekers with their snouts in the trough will vigorously oppose these sensible reforms.