Not surprising.

In 2007 a certain university lecturer, fed up with the managerial push to admit sub-standard and unqualified foreign students in pursuit of revenue, with the resultant pressure placed on lecturers to pass these students regardless of their performance, wrote a rude email to one such student who had failed to deliver a essay on time and who used a tired excuse of family death to justify the late submission. Although it was later proven that no evidence of any death was offered to any university authority and that there were mitigating factors surrounding the intemperate email, the lecturer was sacked for serious misconduct after selected contents of the email exchange with the student were made public by some of her associates (in violation of university confidentiality policy regarding emails).

The dismissal was later found to be unjustified and some monetary reparations were made, but after 25 years of involvement in university teaching and research in several countries (a rarity in NZ), the lecturer never worked in NZ academia again in spite of several applications for NZ university jobs and a very strong record of teaching, research, fellowships and community outreach, especially when compared to NZ peers.

I recount this sorry tale because the real crime committed by this lecturer was to challenge prior to the fact, then jeopardize with his email the revenue streams provided to NZ universities by foreign students willing to pay full fees of 20K or more but who often had no qualifications in their chosen field of study or who could not speak or write comprehensible english (as was the case with the student in question). This began long before National became government, but is now said to be worse because of twenty percent cuts in public spending on tertiary education.

The quest for foreign fees is such that when the same ex-lecturer was suggested some time later as a potential member of a foreign area focused business board, government and education officials purportedly objected on the grounds that his presence could disrupt recently-signed educational agreements between NZ and several countries in that region (this, in spite of his never having had an issue with students from that region and having significant visibility in academic fields relevant to it).

Such is the obsession with using foreign students as revenue generators. The trouble is that obsession has led to a gross lowering of academic standards for admission, passing and graduation of foreign fees paying students. This has had unpleasant results.

Long before National became government, instances of plagarism and bogus excuses for failure to complete course requirements on the part of foreign students well versed in how to abuse staff pastoral care responsibilities was already a thorn in the side of many lecturers, particularly those concerned about the quality of degrees and the well-being of students who worked hard to meet requirements. Managerial pressure to allow sub-standard students to pass is reflected in performance reviews and promotion criteria. The steady erosion of academic union influence eased the way for imposition of managerial edicts focused on quantity rather than quality of incoming students and graduates, to which were added academic restructuring projects that eliminated departments and courses deemed irrelevant to business or incompatible with profit-making.

Given increased academic job uncertainties in such environments, lecturers feel compelled to toe the managerial line, particularly in light of that ex-lecturer’s well publicized experience. The overall impact has been to devalue the reputation of many NZ university departments and programs while opening up a pandora’s box of predictable as well as unintended consequences.

One manifestation of the downside of the push to put high fees-paying foreign bums in seats has gone commercial: institutionalized ghost writing and student identity impersonation on behalf of Chinese students enrolled in NZ tertiary institutions. Some good student stories follow on the subject.

This situation has been going on for over a decade and has been the subject of repeated internal and public complaints (for example, public disclosure about the lack of security vetting of Pakistani and Saudi students seeking degrees in chemistry, chemical engineering and physics, or the well-reported use of Chinese students by PRC intelligence). The government and higher education institutions have been repeatedly warned about the dodgy side of foreign student admissions but have done nothing prior to media publication of the details.

I am not surprised by this commercialized academic cheating because it fills a market niche, and that niche was created by those who thought that NZ higher education instruction was a tradable export commodity for non-English speakers regardless of their cultural context. But with market opening comes consumer expectations, and under the current NZ tertiary foreign education model the expectation from foreign student consumers is to receive a first world-style degree by buying third world practical and ethical standards.

Like in so many other policy areas, unprincipled opportunity-takers on both sides of the process have benefitted at the expense of the common good. After all, and revenue-generation aside, encouraging dishonesty in any endeavour is bound to be deleterious over the long term.

7 thoughts on “Not surprising.

  1. Pablo, I should be very careful what I say considering I work in the industry that supplies those very same foreign students…

    You’re right.

    But also, I often find myself wondering how much those universities actually understand about the countries they recruit from let alone how much they attempt to research. I can tell you that basically everything that happens in New Zealand is reported in some form or another in China, and so anybody thinking of sending a child (really, child – a whole ‘nother discussion, albeit related to this issue) to study in NZ will find out the good, bad, ugly and whatever else goes on by asking Baidu a simple question or two. I can also tell you that the decision making processes behind sending a child to university are radically different here than what your average Kiwi is used to, as is, far too often, the reasons for the decisions made. Credentialism is an extremely healthy beast in China, and I’m sure it is a major motivation behind assignment4U and the market it supplies.

    I could easily rant a lot more on this and many related issues, but I have lessons to prepare for tomorrow…

    I agree with you, though, on who is to blame for this mess.

  2. Thanks Chris, for the interesting insights. It is always sad to see what happens when the whiff of money wafts over the educational process. In the US the corruptive influence of money on academic life is most evident in collegiate sports. In NZ, however, it is more pervasive and evident in the diminution of academic standards.

    Your mention of “credentialism” reminds me of my time in SIngapore–it is not the quality of scholarship that matters but where one gets their degree. A C graduate from a “good” university is always favored over an A+ student from an “inferior” institution, regardless of the monetary or familial considerations that go into the choice of school (for example, high performing working class Malay students often have to go to schools that are cheaper than the national university, whereas middle class low performing ethnic Chinese students use the national university as their default option for entry into the public bureaucracy).

  3. Yes, Pablo, the Singapore situation sounds very similar to China – and although the ethnic politics works a bit differently in the two countries, I’m sure we could draw some parellels there, too. High school students are under an extreme amount of pressure to do well in the “Gao Kao”/College Entrance Exam to get into a “good” university. Those who get into Peking, Tsinghua, Fudan, Nankai, etc, have it made. And this is also one driver in the demand for a foreign education, as many families wealthy enough, or even those just barely affluent enough to raise a student loan, formally or informally, would much rather send their kids abroad than to a lower-ranked Chinese university.

    And lost in all this are the kids, who all too often are allowed little or no say in what they will study where, and who for so many years have been loaded down with books and assignments, starved of sleep and leisure time and told constantly by parents and teachers to study hard, to the point where very many arrive at university without a lot of really basic experience or life skills. So I’m inclined to see assignment4U’s clients as much as victims of this social and educational system as offenders.

    I showed some of my students your article and the Stuff article you linked to, and at first they just laughed it off – they agree that it’s wrong, but cheating on exams and buying and selling assignments are very common, and I’m sure many see it as just one of the ways you survive this system. So it’s certainly no surprise to see them doing the same in New Zealand.

  4. Chris: Although in some sense attendance at university is always a means towards another end, the immediacy of that connection in some societies makes the notion of academic integrity (as in doing one’s own work) or the intrinsic worth of intellectual life superfluous to requirements. The idea is to get the degree in order to ascend the social totem pole regardless of the means and ways involved.

    This is compounded by the new academic managerialism that sees students as fees-paying clients. The students are well aware of this and increasingly have adopted the attitude that since they are paying tuition, they will pass their courses and get a degree no matter what. This is not exclusive to Asian societies–there are plenty of native-born Kiwi students with that attitude. Since managers rely on fees in climates of fiscal austerity, they exert pressure on staff to pass even the dim-witted, the dishonest, and particularly the dimwitted, dishonest yet well-monied or connected.

    It is a sorry state of affairs and will not change until the regime of academic Taylorism is abandoned.

  5. I remember the scandalous sacking of the certain lecturer well. My son demanded his fees back on the grounds that the university was depriving him of the quality education he had paid for. He was right but, sadly,” management” won .

  6. Eric:

    I am sure that the lecturer very much appreciated the support he received from your son and other students. But institutional weight and money trumps moral and ethical claims, at least in NZ academia.

    The most telling comment was uttered by the Dean who did the firing at an ERA hearing. When asked why he choose summary dismissal over a host of lesser penalties, the Dean replied that “in a reputation-based enterprise such as academia, he knew that it would end (the lecturer’s) career.” When pressed further he said that the lecturer’s actions had harmed the university’s reputation abroad and that was the action that had to be taken.

    And so it was.

  7. “You’ll never work in this town again Pablo…” movie industry malevolence persists (remember Robyn Malcom and Jennifer Ward Lealand’s treatment during the Hobbit debacle? by Lord Jackson and certain producers).

    Backsides on seats academia is so off putting for most all involved bar the slimiest of functionaries.

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