When international students become sources of necessary income

Few of us were surprised by the revelations made on Four Corners, Australia's investigative current affairs program, that alleged that several universities engage in ethically dubious practices when it comes to recruiting international students.

May 10, 2015

Few of us who have been working in universities in Australia were surprised by the revelations made recently on Four Corners, the national flagship investigative current affairs program that alleged that several if not most of the country’s universities engage in ethically dubious practices when it comes to recruiting and graduating international students. Most of us have known that dodgy agents are collecting as much money as they can at every stage of the process and from every source possible. Most of us also knew that universities are not adverse to ‘assisting’ full fee paying international students to graduate by whatever means necessary.

None of that is new or indeed, unexpected. If you turn your country’s higher education sector into a business where universities have to generate new income, then the marketplace will dictate the terms. It is naive to think that by turning a degree into a product, consumers won’t be shopping around and looking for the best deal. And it’s sheer folly to think that the best Chinese matriculants see Australia’s universities as their first choice. Our prestige trails behind the US, the UK and China, which means that our intake, generally speaking, consists of the sub-elite, the cohort for who an international degree is a ticket for a higher earning capacity and as such, may be more inclined to “ensure” the best potential result through unethical means. Agents are well versed in exploiting this, and some undoubtedly are more concerned with profiteering than the best outcomes for their clients.

So, why has the furor erupted now? There are a number of reasons but two stand out. First, the Four Corners program used nursing degrees as an example of falling standards, citing cases where students who couldn’t read English graduated and were registered as qualified nurses. In one case at least, a patient died because he was administered dishwashing liquid instead of his prescribed medicine because the nurse couldn’t read the labels, and the liquid looked kind of the same. Regardless of the fact that the incident represents a lottery-odds rarity, such a tragedy has enormous emotional impact because, like lotteries, people believe that it could have just as easily have happened to them. A slip up by an accountant could undoubtedly have dreadful consequences but a mistake that could be forgiven. Dying because a nurse gave you the wrong medicine is an entirely different kettle of fish. On the other hand, such incidences are not only rare, they are not limited to Australia. And this example is at least three years old. So, why now?

The second reason that these revelations are so potent now, is more complex and timely. Australian universities believe that they have been “thrown to the wolves” by the government, which is steadily reducing financial support to the sector while at the same time, is unable to pass legislation that will allow universities to set their own, market-driven fees.  The impasse has squeezed budgets to nearly unfeasible levels. The top universities are keen to assume responsibility for how much they charge their students: there isn’t much advantage in being the highest ranked university in the country if you can’t leverage that status in the marketplace.

On the other hand, the lower ranked institutions suffer both from less support from the public purse and from having less institutional prestige. And when two of these less prestigious institutions were featured prominently and negatively in the Four Corner’s expose, there was a suggestion that their survival strategy might rely on questionable practices. But such an implication is far from the truth because despite evidence that some get there by cheating, the majority of graduates from Australian universities have legitimately qualified for their degrees. Cheating is unacceptable, an issue that needs to be vigorously addressed but I doubt that there is a university anywhere that hasn’t been accused of similar practices.

The program also touched another nerve. In general, Australians are well aware that higher education is an important industry and there is a well-deserved pride in the fact that the country provides an excellent education for the many international students who study here. At the same time, for heavily urbanised states like Victoria and New South Wales, higher education is one of the top three money-spinners. Therefore, a suggestion that all is not as it should be is a double whammy: to the national psyche and to the national purse.

It will be interesting to see what happens now. One university announced the day after the Four Corner’s broadcast that it is no longer going to work with agents. It’s a brave gesture but is unlikely to be sustainable because the agent pipeline is a system that is as ingrained as it is corrupt. And Australian universities need international students more than international students need Australian universities. Only two or three institutions have sufficient pulling power to survive without the agents and fairs, but I suspect that even they will continue to engage with them, albeit with some extra check and balances put in place.

Universities will also continue to bend over backwards to ensure that students complete their courses. What needs to be done to counter the perception that international students who lack the academic rigour and integrity nonetheless graduate is a complex problem and will need an equally complex response. But again, it is difficult to see how a nuanced response is possible when universities have been forced to compete for students and income in a marketplace where consumers can exploit the system. Collectively student fees don’t just buy places in courses, they sustain the sector. Without income from international students Australian higher education would collapse, and with the nation’s mining boom in decline, that is something Australia cannot afford. How academic standards and integrity can be protected in such an environment continues to be a complex and vexatious issue.



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