The Students Universities 'Cannot Afford to Fail'

Australia considers whether the quest for tuition revenue from abroad is eroding standards.

May 4, 2015

A recent investigative news program combined with a report from a governmental anticorruption commission have stirred up a debate in Australia about the prevalence of fraud in international student recruitment and the alleged slippage of academic standards as the country’s universities have grown increasingly dependent on the tuition these students bring. The debate in Australia -- where international students account for more than a fifth of university enrollments, compared to just about 4 percent in the U.S. -- arguably has implications for American universities as they seek to grow international student enrollments and increasingly embrace the use of commissioned agents in recruiting, a practice widely accepted in Australia.

“Universities generally have become less able to demand appropriate minimum levels of English proficiency as the global supply of university places outstrips demand,” states a report on international students, “Learning the Hard Way,” recently completed by the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC), a governmental body in New South Wales (the state in which Sydney is located).

“In short, the result is that universities in NSW have come to depend financially on a cohort of students, many of whom are struggling to pass, but who the university cannot afford to fail. Standards can be compromised to accommodate the lower levels of student abilities, but reputational cost and internal resistance creates a floor under academic standards. A significant gap remains between the capabilities of some international students and the academic standards demanded by universities.”  

The release of the ICAC report was followed soon after by the airing of an Australian Broadcasting Corporation investigation into the use of international student recruitment agents and the apparent addiction of universities to the revenue international students bring. The report by the television news program Four Corners described pressure on academics “to ignore plagiarism and to pass weak students.”

The Four Corners program resulted in a flurry of op-eds in Australian newspapers, ranging from calls for a federal investigation to criticisms of the Four Corners program and the ICAC report as being “one-sided” on the issue of recruitment agents. In The Conversation, a publication that features opinion and analysis written by academics, headlines of pieces published in the wake of the Four Corners report include “Australian unis should take responsibility for corrupt practices in international education,” “The slide of academic standards in Australia: a cautionary tale” and “Biased reports on international students not helpful.” 

The umbrella association Universities Australia released a statement in which it called for an investigation of “any evidence of cheating, lax academic standards and malpractice by agents” but rejected any insinuation of “systemic” problems in these areas.

“As with any multibillion-dollar sector, there are risks, as both Four Corners and the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption concede. Universities have been working continuously to reduce and mitigate them through ever-evolving processes and systems, plagiarism detection software, new task forces and terminating the use of suspect agents,” the association’s chief executive, Belinda Robinson, said in the statement. 

Issues of Academic Standards

There is no question that the Four Corners report has caused a stir.

“It has hit a nerve because a lot of what the Four Corners program is showing is very true; people have been aware of it a long time,” said Alex Barthel, a higher education consultant and the inaugural president of the Association for Academic Language and Learning. In an op-ed that appeared last week in The Australian Financial Review, Barthel, who was interviewed in the Four Corners report, estimates that “between 25 and 35 percent of all domestic and international first-year university students have moderate to severe English language difficulties, creating considerable challenges for academic staff as well as the students themselves. Employers report that many university graduates are not employable, as their language proficiency is below that required to start a university course.” (A 2010 report from the Australian government found that while the majority of employers were satisfied with the English language skills of international graduates of Australian universities, about one in five employers rated the graduates’ English skills as poor.)

“Irrespective of how students are recruited, where the universities are lacking seriously is in using some of the funds that they are making from the profits of international students to provide the students with the kind of language support that they need to get up to speed,” Barthel said in an interview with Inside Higher Ed.

“The issue around academic standards is a really big one for Australian universities because we’re widening participation,” said Sophia Arkoudis, an associate professor and the deputy director of the University of Melbourne’s Center for the Study of Higher Education. “We’re bringing in more diverse students,” including from within Australia. “It’s not just an international student issue.”

“If you’re widening participation, and the entry standards that we’re using to allow students into university are broadening along with that, we really need to focus more on what our exit standards are going to look like in order to protect the academic standards of Australian universities,” said Arkoudis, who in her own research has found that “it cannot be assumed that international students who complete their degree in an English-speaking university have developed their language skills in all areas.”

In a 2009 study comparing standardized International English Language Testing System (IELTS) scores at entry to and exit from an Australian university, Arkoudis and a co-author found that international students showed the least improvement in writing and hypothesized that this may be because they aren’t being asked to undertake extended writing assignments in some fields. Improvements in speaking, meanwhile, seemed to be conditional on how frequently students practiced English in social settings.

International students typically have to meet an IELTS or other standardized English test score requirement to gain entry into Australian university programs, though both the ICAC and Four Corners reports note the existence of pathway programs -- also proliferating in the U.S. -- which focus on English language coursework and provide an alternative route into universities for international students who wouldn't meet the English language requirements for direct university admission.

“With more than 20 percent of total enrollments being international, the large majority fee paying, the Australian higher ed system is more dependent on income from international student ‘trade’ than any other system,” said Anthony Welch, a professor of education at the University of Sydney. “While most academic staff work conscientiously and hard to help international students, who often need additional language and other forms of support… there is unquestionably administrative and commercial pressure to not allow international students to fail.”

Welch said the challenge in Australian higher education is to balance the commercial motivation against other imperatives. “I think most institutions try to do their best, but if push comes to shove sometimes that commercial imperative will win out, and I think that’s where a lot of the problems lie.”

Issues of Recruitment Agents

One manifestation of the commercialization of international higher education is the increasing reliance on recruiting agents who are paid per capita commissions. The controversial practice, which is growing in popularity among U.S. universities, is by comparison more long-standing and wide-spread at Australian institutions. A report released last week by the Australian government’s Productivity Commission recommended that the country’s universities should reduce their reliance on educational agencies, which by one estimate  are the source for 63 percent of international university enrollments Down Under.  The report argues that agents are driven largely by quantity considerations and argues that “excessive reliance” on them “may lead to a less than optimal mix of international students, with some of the best students enrolling in institutions in other countries such as the U.S. and the U.K.”

The Productivity Commission report also cites anecdotal evidence of "unscrupulous behavior" on the part of some agents. "At the root of concerns about agent behavior is a set of incentives that lead agents to act in a manner that may not be optimal for providers, students or from a broader Australian public policy perspective," the report says. 

The Four Corners program by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) featured two examples of agents seeming to endorse the doctoring of credentials in conversations with an undercover reporter. The two agencies in question, Shinyway International and EduGlobal, have disputed their portrayal on the news program as inaccurate or misleading (“The fact that ABC could only pick out two out-of-context and edited sentences made by the EduGlobal adviser from a 20 minutes’ counseling session has shown that the ABC could not prove their point of ‘corrupt agencies' with respect to EduGlobal,” the latter agency said.)

Shinyway and EduGlobal are both certified by the American International Recruitment Council, an association that certifies agents in an accreditationlike process and which seeks to promote good practices in agent-based recruitment. The association has been in touch with the two agencies to request additional information, said AIRC's executive director, John Deupree: “In sum, while the commission does not currently have sufficient information on which to base any judgments about any of the interviewed agencies, it is continuing to review the matter. Should the commission decide to undertake a further review, no decisions will be made without due process and complete documentation. Just as with academic accreditation, when such a standards violation is determined, the AIRC certification process proscribes a range of actions ranging from a monitored internal improvement plan up to and including the public revocation of certification.”

More generally, Deupree emphasized that fraud in admissions is not just an issue involving agents and that the onus falls on institutions to track the success of their international students regardless of the channel through which they’re recruited. “Fraud and misrepresentation can occur at any point along the enrollment spectrum -- beginning with parents, students themselves, third parties and both sending and receiving educational institutions,” he said.

However, the ICAC report emphasizes many of the challenges specific to the management of agent relationships. Noting that some Australian universities have relationships with 200-300 agents, the ICAC report recommends that universities limit the number of agencies with which they work and that they design the incentive compensation structure in order to reward the agent for retention of the referred student rather than just enrollment. 

“Without exception, all universities contacted by the commission had experienced instances of agents submitting false documentation, assisting students to corruptly pass admission processing or attempting to bribe staff to approve certain student applications,” states the ICAC report.

“Schools should really do their due diligence before starting work with agents or before intensifying existing work with agents,” said Eddie West, the director of international initiatives at the National Association for College Admission Counseling, which does not endorse the use of commissioned agents but has issued a guide with recommendations for institutions that choose to work with them. “It is an area that’s just fraught with many risks -- risks to students, risk to schools, financial risks, misadvisement risks.”

West said that most U.S. institutions probably don't pay much attention to international student-related issues in Australia -- but he thinks that perhaps they should. “These reports are vivid reminders that schools really need to approach this activity carefully and with eyes wide open.”


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