01 November 2011


There's not a lot of comfort in the 76 page report by the Victorian Ombudsman on its Investigation into how universities deal with international students [PDF].

The Ombusman makes 17 recommendationa -
R 1 - Review their minimum IELTS scores for admission to courses based on evidence about the academic needs and performance of students by mid-2012, and provide the findings to my office.

R 2 - Amend their admission procedures to require admissions officers to verify IELTS test results submitted by prospective students and report evidence of student anomalies to testing organisations.

R 3 - Require all international students, including students who have completed pathway courses, to submit results of an independent language test, taken not more than twelve months previously, prior to enrolment in higher education programs.

R 4 - Monitor and report annually to their academic governing bodies from 2012 about the academic progress of international students who enter university through different English language pathways.

R 5 - Conduct annual reviews of their admission standards.

R 6 - Review English language services for students by mid-2012 to identify the extent to which students use existing services, including identifying any barriers to student participation and models for providing effective in-course language support to all students.

R 7 - Review the extent to which academic staff, including sessional staff, use professional development resources designed to help them teach and assess diverse groups of students, and identify any barriers to staff participation and models for providing practical support to staff.

R 8 - Appoint external examiners to report on their academic standards and assessment methods.

R 9 - Commission an independent risk assessment of the extent of cheating and bribery amongst staff and students and the effectiveness of their existing policies and procedures by mid-2012 and provide the findings to my office.

R 10 - Remind staff about their obligations to report plagiarism, cheating and other academic misconduct under university policies and procedures.

R 11 - Advise all staff about the provisions of the Whistleblowers Protection Act 2001 and provide regular training in this regard.

R 12 - Review written complaint and appeal policies and procedures against regulatory requirements and the Ombudsman’s guide to complaint handling for Victorian public sector agencies.

R 13 - Review the accessibility of their complaint and appeal systems, including simplifying their systems and their communication with students by mid-2012, and provide the findings to my office.

R 14 - Improve information and training for staff about complaint handling, including through induction programs and the appointment of complaint officers, either centrally or in schools, to advise and assist staff.

R 15 - Record and monitor all complaints and appeals, including those managed within schools and administrative areas, and report annually to their governing bodies.

R 16 - Review policies and procedures for dealing with unsatisfactory academic progress, including:
• barriers to student engagement
• ways to identify ‘at risk’ students earlier
• communication with students during university vacations
• ways to manage students who have re-enrolled while appeals are underway.
R 17 - Audit compliance with regulatory and quality standards regularly at a school and administrative division level. These audits should examine the implementation of standards in practice through consultation with academic staff and students.
Those recommendations reflect the Ombudsman's comments that -
International education activity as a whole generated $5.9 billion for the Victorian economy in 2009-10.

Victoria’s reputation for providing quality higher education has been a key selling point for universities. There has been considerable effort on the part of governments to protect and promote this reputation, particularly following the recent downturn in the international student market.

Complaints from students at universities to my office, however, have more than tripled in the last four years, from 176 in 2007-08 to 534 in 2010-11. Many of these complainants identify themselves as international students and most contact my office because their university has, or is proposing to, exclude them because of poor academic performance. Complaints from students at universities to my office have more than tripled in the last four years.

I have observed some concerning patterns with these complaints:
• A number of international students struggle to communicate in English. This is despite the fact that universities are meant to ensure they have appropriate English language proficiency before admission.
• Some universities have been the source of a disproportionately high number of complaints.
At the same time, I have received disclosures under the Whistleblowers Protection Act alleging improper conduct at some universities, such as bribery or preferential treatment of students. ...

My investigation initially focused on the universities’ handling of student complaints, but as it progressed I also identified issues with:
• English language admission standards and support services
• academic standards and conduct
• regulatory arrangements.
The Ombudsman went on to comment that -
Several witnesses claimed that universities are reluctant to face problems with their admission policies for fear of reducing international student numbers and revenue. My investigation obtained internal documents from three universities showing business considerations have factored in discussions about admission policies.

My investigation obtained internal documents from three universities showing business considerations have factored in discussions about admission policies.

The universities rejected any suggestion that admission standards have been compromised by revenue. They expressed concern about the methodology for my investigation, particularly the number of witnesses interviewed. Swinburne noted that other factors, in addition to English language skills, affect international students’ academic and career prospects. RMIT and the University of Ballarat referred to the published data showing international students have pass rates comparable to local students and dismissed contrary evidence from witnesses as ‘anecdotal’.

However, my investigation identified that only one of the four universities – Swinburne – has been regularly collecting and analysing data about the academic performance of students admitted through different English language pathways to verify its own policies. This is despite a 2002 report from Victoria’s Auditor-General recommending all universities track the relationship between admission pathways and academic outcomes to support admission decisions.

I consider that the universities need to shift their focus from recruiting students and boosting their revenue to ensuring their international students have the necessary skills to study successfully. ...

The growth of international education at Victorian universities has been rapid and far-reaching. The pace of change is likely to continue with the introduction of demand-driven funding for local students and plans to increase participation in higher education.

Recent disclosures to my office under the Whistleblowers Protection Act, along with media debate about ‘soft marking’ of students, raise questions about how universities are maintaining standards in the face of these changes.

The four universities all have quality assurance systems and processes and aim to promote proper conduct through staff codes of conduct and strategies to discourage and detect plagiarism.

I consider that the universities need to strengthen their systems. The university staff interviewed during my investigation were committed to giving international students a meaningful education, and to preserving quality and standards in the face of significant changes to their working environment. However, some staff reported experiences that are cause for concern. These include:
• A nursing lecturer at one university said her head of school had given extra marks to students because he thought the failure rate for her subject was too high and he wanted ‘to get the traffic lights green’.
• Academics at three universities said the way they assess students has changed, with less emphasis on written examinations and more emphasis on other types of assessment such as group work.
• Academics at three universities said plagiarism is a problem for students. One RMIT academic described it as ‘running rampant’.
• Six of 15 academic staff interviewed from the four universities reported they had been offered a bribe by a student in the past, or knew of colleagues who had been offered a bribe.
The report unsurprisingly does not grapple with the 'elephant in the classroom', ie the question about funding tertiary education and the role of the 'enterprise university'.