When it was time to defend Christopher Pyne’s controversial plans to deregulate the university sector you couldn’t get away from the vice-chancellors of the nation’s biggest universities.
But after a Four Corners investigation unearthed evidence that major universities have been using dodgy foreign recruitment agents, and allegations of systemic pressure to pass students regardless of their abilities, the VCs seem to have lost their confidence.
The highly anticipated program was partially based on a recent Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) investigation which warned the pressure on academics to pass students in universities was so extreme it could be conducive to corruption.
Whistleblowers from the Australian Catholic University, the University of Western Sydney, and the University of Sydney also delivered damning testimony, with some warning nursing students were being passed despite being unable to perform basic duties, potentially putting patients at risk.
Others said students – including domestics – were being admitted to courses with low entry scores and poor basic skills.
Dr Zena O’Connor, a sessional lecturer at the University of Sydney’s Faculty of Architecture, Design and Planning, told Four Corners of serious problems with plagiarism, caused by the fact students with low levels of English were being accepted into courses.
“I came forward because the issue of plagiarism is, in my experience, getting far worse than I’ve ever seen,” Dr O’Connor told New Matilda today.
“I decided to put my sessional lecturer 12-week contract on the line and speak out about it as it highlights so many other issues – as became clear in the Four Corners program last night.”
“There are many sessional and also full-time lecturers who seem to be reluctant to speak out because their livelihood is on the line and they don’t want to be seen as troublemakers or inadequate somehow.”
While a number of other former and current university staff came forward to speak to Four Corners, not a single vice-chancellor graced the screen.
“Four Corners requested an interview while the VC was in China,” a spokesperson for the University of Sydney told New Matilda. “The producers later extended their deadline but by then his diary was full on the two additional days they made available.”
Vice chancellors and Minister Pyne need to respond to #4corners disclosures tonight.
— Marian Wilkinson (@mwilkinson54) April 20, 2015
Jeannie Rae, president of the National Tertiary Education Union, said it was “abysmal” that none of the university leaders had agreed to speak on camera.
“Maybe because I remain naïve or optimistic, but I was expecting to see some vice-chancellors,” she said.
“I was expecting to see professor [Greg] Craven from Australian Catholic University respond to what was said there.”
When asked about the pressure on academics to pass underperforming students Rae was cautious in her response, but said it was troubling the matters raised by Four Corners ended up before ICAC rather than being prevented in the first place.
“We’re under enormous pressure to pass students,” she said. “We don’t spend enough time on them.”
Phil Honeywood, CEO of the International Education Association of Australia, defended the industry and attacked Four Corners, describing parts of the program as “really annoying”.
He rejected the idea that universities were engaging in a ‘race to the bottom’ and that the commercial incentive to enrol more students was leading to lax entry standards and poor quality graduates.
“It doesn’t matter what industry you look at in Australia,” Honeywood said.
“The construction industry, by way of example; when are we ever going to have a perfect occupational health and safety record in the Australian construction industry? Companies sign up for occupational health and safety policies but constantly let the side down when it comes to implementing those policies.”
“So, international education is far from being the only industry in Australia that on the one hand has very good policies in place, but on occasions providers or members in our industry are caught out by a few operators.”
Universities Australia, the peak bodies for universities in the country, was also upset by the report.
“Last night’s ABC Four Corners program about student cheating, academics under pressure to mark international students leniently and universities using unscrupulous agents to recruit international students, presented a one-sided picture of international education in Australia,” it said in a release.
The peak body used the same argument as those in the vocational education sector, portraying cases of non-compliance as an exception to the rule.
Vocational providers have recently been forced to defend their industry after a Senate Inquiry flagged concerns about aggressive marketing and low rates of debt repayment by students
Despite the insistence that the problems are isolated, the program included reference to a study by Dr Gigi Foster, who was given access to the data of two universities and examined the impact a large number of international students have on course marks.
She found evidence that matched the anecdotal testimony of academics suggesting marks were being adjusted upwards to help pass struggling students.
“It seems to be that there is an adjustment made in response to a large fraction of international students, such that everybody’s marks get buoyed up a little bit,” Dr Foster told the program.
O’Connor said the issues she experienced were not local.
“The issue is a systemic issue that is way bigger than me,” she said. “It seems to undermine the concept of learning which has become almost insignificant. In marking my students’ papers, I’m constantly thinking: what has the student actually learnt? How to cut-and-paste?”
Rae emphasised that international students were subsidising Australia’s otherwise underfunded system.
“It’s the International students I feel sorry for – they basically sign up for a situation that many of them can’t handle due to their relatively poor English skills,” O’Connor said.
New Matilda put questions to the Australian Catholic University. They had not been responded to at the time of publication.
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