As of 2014, the value of international students to the Australian economy was around $15 billion: larger than any financial or agricultural export market. The rise in international students has heralded an unprecedented growth phase at Australian universities, with new campuses and research institutions being built nationwide. It all comes at a cost however, and with university revenues being stretched there is concern that soft-marking at some institutions takes place in order to keep international students enrolling.
According to a Four Corners investigation, universities have accepted students with false academic records and been exposed for mass-cheating, soft-marking and even bribery. There is real concern that academic standards are being sacrificed in exchange for the ready cash-flow gained by accepting the maximum number of international students.
International students gaining easy entry
Although the recommended minimum English language proficiency score for entry to Australian universities is 7, many international students have been accepted with scores as low as 4.5. Our universities are under increased scrutiny, as revealed in findings published by NSW’s Independent Commission Against Corruption that suggested conditions conducive to corruption are the result of reliance on international student revenues. The situation has reached the point where University of Sydney vice-chancellor Michael Spence has established a university-wide taskforce to investigate academic misconduct.
ABC News highlighted the potential catastrophic effect soft-marking will have when nursing students graduate. According to the ABC report, a senior academic confirmed that universities are loosening their standards in order to maintain the fluid international student income stream.
“There are students that are falling through the cracks, and yes, they could end up being unsafe practitioners. There are a group of students who I honestly believe … should not be graduating,” she said.
Universities reject the claims
In response to the claims, UWS issued a statement rejecting the accusation that standards are falling. A spokeswoman at the Australian Catholic University, another institution under the spotlight, stated: “No staff member has the right to direct staff to change grades … there is a process to ensure every course and every unit is reviewed and assessed.”
There is no doubt that some international students will struggle to pass exams, especially if they have inadequate English language skills. Low language thresholds, coupled with a need for funding, has created an environment where universities believe they can’t afford to fail students even when they should.
The nursing sector was rocked in 2009 when a graduate nurse served a patient a cup of dishwashing liquid because he couldn’t read the label on the bottle. Problems associated with cheating and corruption have always existed, but recent developments, including the Australian Government’s proposal for fee deregulation, may have all combined to escalate the problem to its present level.
The great majority of international students arriving in Australia are here because they deserve to be. They have chosen Australian institutions based on our fine academic standards, and it’s of paramount importance that any illegalities are swiftly dealt with if we are to retain the confidence of the next wave of students visiting our shores.