Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Getting What They've Paid For

The Business Of Learning: It is hard to imagine a structure more beset with perverse incentives for unethical behaviour than New Zealand’s tertiary education system. The wonder is not that instances of corruption are being exposed, but that it has taken so long for them to come to light.
 
ASSIGNMENTS FOR YOU – yes, you – the struggling overseas student with poor English. For just $270 you can have a respectable B-Grade. Straight-As are a little more expensive.
 
Many New Zealanders were shocked to learn that for at least five years professional “tutors” have been ghost-writing essays and assignments for Chinese tertiary students.
 
They should not have been.
 
It is hard to imagine a structure more beset with perverse incentives for unethical behaviour than New Zealand’s tertiary education system. The wonder is not that instances of corruption are being exposed, but that it has taken so long for them to come to light.
 
Driving this corruption, as always, is the inadequate funding of public institutions.
 
Reputable tertiary education systems do not come cheap. Lacking the numbers of extremely wealthy individuals, families and corporations that make possible the privately endowed universities of the United Kingdom and the United States, New Zealand’s institutions of higher learning are the product of massive amounts of public investment over many decades – most particularly the 1960s and 70s.
 
What Kiwis relied upon, in lieu of private wealth, was a social bargain that saw the nation’s most talented children provided with what was, in effect, a large educational subsidy while engaged in acquiring the knowledge and skills so essential to building a sophisticated modern economy.
 
That subsidy – what we used to call “free education” – was society’s half of the bargain. The tertiary educated citizen’s half was collected over the course of his or her working life by means of a sharply progressive income tax. Citizens with tertiary qualifications generally attracted the highest salaries, and, as their incomes rose, so, too, did their fiscal contribution to the state.
 
By the end of the university degree-holders’ working lives, they and the state were pretty much square. The truck-driver from Linwood may have helped to pay for the Fendalton lawyer’s son to go to varsity, but, over the course of his working life, the Fendalton lawyer’s son paid him back. What’s more, if the Linwood truck-driver’s daughter was bright, she could go to varsity for free – and even receive a bursary – courtesy of the Fendalton lawyer.
 
But this highly successful and socially equitable solution to the problem of providing young New Zealanders with expensive tertiary qualifications came to an abrupt halt in the 1980s. Rogernomics put an end to our steeply progressive income tax and with it the social-democratic tertiary education system it had funded. The universities and polytechnics were forced to look elsewhere for money.
 
Enter the wealthy overseas student in search of a reputable degree or diploma from an advanced, English-speaking, tertiary institution. Overnight, the full-fees paid by tens-of-thousands of foreign students would become an indispensable component of university and polytechnic budgets. Every university vice-chancellor was concerned to make his university as overseas-student-friendly as possible. Every registrar felt obliged to enrol as many of these overseas student cash-cows as could be squeezed into the institution’s by now overcrowded lecture theatres.
 
The best way to do this was to ensure that the overseas student received value for money. Having invested thousands of dollars in the process, the student (and his family) were unlikely to accept failing grades with equanimity. Even the suggestion that a university was flunking too many overseas students could prove fatal to its finances.
 
Tertiary institutions are filled with very intelligent people, so vice-chancellors didn’t need to send out a memo detailing the requirements of the new regime. The professors, lecturers and tutors had already grasped what was expected of them.
 
They knew that the well-researched, correctly referenced and clearly written essays handed in by overseas students who struggled to construct a coherent English sentence in tutorials, were almost certainly not their own work, but they marked them anyway. Because they also knew that assessing an overseas student’s work according to the standards applied to New Zealand-born students would be a colossal, career-terminating, error of judgement.
 
The corrosive effects of such hypocrisy are all-too-readily predictable. Leaving aside the malignant impact on the moral health of university staff, these false assessments cannot help raising the expectations of New Zealand-born students. Surely, as paying customers, they also deserve value for their fees? How long will it be before tertiary educators feel obliged to dole out passing grades to every single one of their student “customers”?
 
In the old Soviet Union, the hard-pressed workers were fond of saying: “So long as they pretend to pay us, we’ll pretend to work.” The joke brilliantly encapsulated the dishonesty that had corrupted the entire Soviet system.
 
Our once proud tertiary education system now stands in peril of embodying a similar level of systemic pretence. Indeed, its academic workers may already be muttering to one another: “So long as they pretend this place is a university, we’ll pretend its students have earned their degrees.”
 
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 14 May 2013.

21 comments:

Anonymous said...

This isn't true. The problem is that it's hard to catch them. It's all very well if you get a paper that looks like a student can't possibly have written it, but proving that is extremely difficult, especially when it has been ghost written. In cases where it cannot be proven, we can do nothing, because of the robust rights that students have these days.

The real problem is letting them in in the first place, and the fact that we aren't really allowed to fail people on a large scale any more, which means that we can't make them work.

Jigsaw said...

Once again Chris you have looked at the past through extremely romantic(and socialist) eye and projected it into the present. In the days you talk about a very small percentage of students got to university. There were a limited number of courses not the hundreds as there are today. My eldest son is 45 -when he was at high school there were a handful in the 7th form-now there most students go that far (not with much result I can add!)When he finally got an MSc it was with a large number of others. You cannot judge today's university life by yesterday's standards - its simply doesn't work that way. As for cheating-in the old days, assignememnbst were written by hand, today I would suggest few are and its altogether much more difficult to detect.

Anonymous said...

Jigsaw -I got a degree. So did most of the kids in my class. All working class of one sort or another too. Those that didn't weren't consigned to Macjobs either.

Brendon said...

It is worse still than you say Chris. Because in the 1980s New Zealand economic model was broken we were no longer Britain's farm. Exports to the old country had drop from 50% to 10% from the mid 60s to mid 70s.

New Zealand tertiary institutes needed not only to produce a few lawyers, accountants and plumbers we needed scientists, technicians, designers etc to run new industries to replace our lost British market.

That never happened and our economy has been on a downward glide path ever since.

We need a new social contract.

Brendon said...

I think the worst thing that Rogernomics did was to create the culture in New Zealand that state institutions did not matter. That they were just a barrier that needed to be cleared away by the much more efficient free market.

Even where state institutions survived the high tide of neoliberal reforms this culture has degraded standards.

I know comparing NZ to Finland has some bad history but it is one of the few places other than NZ where I have lived. In Finland they have the culture that to succeed personally and as a country you need to be educated. What does this mean in practice?

Well my nursing friend wanted to become a lawyer. To do this he needs to pass an entrance exam. The first time he studied a few weeks and failed. The second time a few months and failed by 1/2 a point. He hopes that maybe next year he will be successful. Each year the Law School issues a different text book on a different area of law to study for the exam. This entrance exam process is widespread throughout the Finnish tertiary education system.

No dumbing down of standards in Finland!

If we seriously want to reform the neoliberal system then we have change our she'll be right attitude to our public institutions culture too.

Brendon said...

Read the comment stream between Brendon and Ms De Meanour in the following article to see how threatened neoliberals are by the idea of quality state institutions paid for from taxation.

http://www.interest.co.nz/opinion/64450/matt-nolan-explores-how-tax-distorts-behaviour-and-who-ends-bearing-actual-cost-tax#comment-736661

Brendon said...

http://www.interest.co.nz/opinion/64450/matt-nolan-explores-how-tax-distorts-behaviour-and-who-ends-bearing-actual-cost-tax#comment-736661

Read this article to see how entrench the idea that public institutions provided by taxation are a cost not a benefit to society.

Jigsaw said...

Dumbing down is the real problem. At the basic grade school I taught at in Ontario - the school motto was 'success for every student' and they did succeed-like a high jumper can succeed with the bar on the ground. The qualification was worth nothing as all in the city knew the high school it came from. Someone has pointed out in a letter to the Listener this week - it's 'can you jump this' or 'this' not 'how high can you jump?' Making qualifications easier to achieve does not raise the standard.

Robert M said...

Its not really an issue. University education in NZ in the second decade of the 21C is just babysitting 19 and 20 year old's and ensuring they spend a few hours a day out of bed away from the bar and whatever their taking.
In modern NZ university education the essentials are to respect the three P's Peace, Pansies and the Palestinians. Beyond on that passable spelling, a few full stops and a regurgatation of the lecturers views,notes and political prejudices should guarantee a B+.
Assessment is likely be based on seminar, group work and the written work assessed 90% on spelling, basic grammar, footnotes and some sort of logic and coherence rather than any issue of quality, relevance, respect for truth and ability to weigh various analysis and arguments.
The aim of modern NZ varsity education is to produce someone who will fit in in mid level employment and to a conformist NZ society. Its worthless, anyway. Any real learning comes from asides from lecturers and other students and what you pick up, meet and see when intoxicated in bars. A tiny few actually read the books in the uni library and a few more study these things on the internet.

Brendon said...

Sorry Chris they are the same link. Sometimes I have trouble posting a reply and have to rewrite it. In this case it was a double post. Doh

Anonymous said...

Robert M. I was a student in the 60s, and now I'm a student in MY 60s, and I've never heard such a load of BS in my life. My son is also a student, and so is my wife. We all work damned hard, and we all get pretty good grades. I haven't noticed any grade inflation since the 1960s and I've been doing extramural study through Massey for the last 25 plus years. Your post is just a series of stereotypes. And sorry – who uses the word pansies these days?

Jigsaw said...

Those that are brainwashed are not always aware of what has happened to them.

Anonymous said...

Those who uncritically use stereotypes are either brainwashed or too lazy to properly investigate.

Scouser said...

I see major flaws in your statement

"Driving this corruption, as always, is the inadequate funding of public institutions"

e.g. if a degree has long term value then the driver is the value of the degree and not whether it has been paid for privately


That aside, I have real issues with the current educational system.

For those who believe education has not been devalued. Sorry - you are just plain wrong. At least, in the areas I am qualified to comment on. Science, Maths & Computing.

I have recruited many IT staff - the degree exams are that easy to pass I am concerned when I receive a CV with too many B grades. Many have poor basic IT skills.

I have no children so checked with kids of my friends and what they learn is about 9-15 months behind what was standard when I was a child. I did a similar exercise on the UK curriculum as my qualifications are in the UK and saw a similar result.

I believe these types of consequence occur because we made a degree available to 'all' independent of ability and suitability. This type of availability is expensive so we end up with lesser direct funding for individual more deserving students, over-using commercial models for funding and easy debt for students.

This then tends to undermine a requirement to set decent quality levels. There is also a general driver in education for decades to move away from pass/fail as acceptable.

We seem to have copied most of the aspects of what I see as a flawed US based system.

As per the contributor who mentioned the Finnish system what is rarely mentioned in comparisons between the NZ an Finnish system is that too many of our current teachers would not be good enough to teach in Finland. They set high standards that have to be met.

Personally, I would like to see:

- reduced number of degree courses
- higher standards to get in to a degree course
- increased subsidies for poorer families' students to make it affordable for degree courses
- similar subsidies for trades' qualifications
- higher standards required to receive such subsidies - if you cannot pass the course - you're out - with some leeway

I suggest all of this out of self interest despite having no children. We need to improve both academic and vocational training.

Robert M said...

Anon(6.34)you and your family are probably considered such a retrobate by Joyce and English, that your academic records, tax returns, student loans, any benefit receipt, unjustified sick pay from the govt- with be under toothcombe inspection by the IRD, GCSB, Police and Serious Fraud.
Twenty five years of Massey study and a family engaged in lifelong study at probably NZ's least credible and mark inflated university. I assume of course you are Steve Maharey and have confined yourself to Sociology, Psychology and Anthropology with a bit of Historical witchcraft.
For myself in twenty years of study I managed mainly at Otago, Vic and Canterbury a BA at Vic, a BA (Hons) and MA (Hons) and B.Com at Canterbury and an almost complete BCA at Vic with full stage 3 economics with good grades.
After gaining an A from a top US lecturer in Cold War History I switched to Sociology, where for the first time I failed everything and got nothing but E's. Greg Newbolt said I had learned nothing at 20 years at varsity. I would say my family was the brightest in the country. My father and grandfather Balliol 13-14, 19-20, 49-45

Clockie said...

@Robert M 12.16

And so modest with it...

Twenty YEARS you dabbled around across the academic spectrum before failing in sociology of all things (which probably explains your insane bitterness towards the modern academic scene) and yet, you have the gall to have a go at Anon for A) gaining a tertiary qualification when young. B) updating extramurally while working. C) Paying fees to study (probably) post retirement. Your entire comment is no more than an unlovely and incoherent rant and displays little of the elegant prose one might expect from a multi-degreed scion of the brightest family in the country. (muffled laughter).

Anonymous said...

Robert, not sure what a retrobate is. Or a toothcombe. Hope this is not an example of your capabilities. I've been studying part time in my spare time because I like it. My wife studies part-time to get extra qualifications for her job. Again you talk in stereotypes. Have you any evidence for your assertions about Massey University? Try giving us a link, or are you just blowing smoke? Actually, hesitate to mention this, but for some strange reason I still have all my assignments from Auckland University in the 1960s and 70s. And when I read them, they're pretty much crap. And yet I got reasonable if not outstanding marks. Compared to what I do today, there is no contest. Some of my old stuff I wouldn't give a pass to.

Giles Barker said...

thank you
you articulated what once was, and why it was so.
it seems almost impossible to explain to many people that this system worked well for pretty much everyone, not perfect but so close that you have to wonder why we abandoned it all so easily. that is of course the real wonder. how we had so much and threw it all away.for get about 'without a fight' it seemed like it was more like 'without a care'

Anonymous said...

Robert, you've gone strangely silent. When are you going to come up with some evidence about the decline in the education system, specifically in relation to Massey University? Is there any evidence out there about grade inflation?

You see one thing that amuses me about the right although it's quite dangerous, and you do it so well, is that you have all these ready made slogans which if repeated enough gain some sort of weird credence. There are millions of people ripping off the social welfare system. There are thousands of people deliberately having lots of kids so they can get the DPB. Or in the States for instance, there are apparently hundreds of thousands of episodes of electoral fraud according to the Republicans. Yet they can only show about 3 when asked for actual evidence – all by Republicans :-). Still, you might need to do some research and I'm quite willing to wait.

Anonymous said...

"In modern NZ university education the essentials are to respect the three P's Peace, Pansies and the Palestinians."

Maybe to about 5% or less of the student body. The rest couldn't careless. This remark demonstrates how ignorant you are.


"For myself in twenty years of study I managed mainly at Otago, Vic and Canterbury a BA at Vic, a BA (Hons) and MA (Hons) and B.Com at Canterbury and an almost complete BCA at Vic with full stage 3 economics with good grades."

So you have basically done two commerce degrees? Commerce degrees are designed to appeal to those conformist, timid souls who want to slot into some mediocre position in a corporate environment. Judging by the time spent taking these degree it appears that you have utterly failed on this miserable objective. Maybe if you took a professional degree like law I'd be impressed.

I think the essay writing scandal is probably limited to commerce degrees since Chinese students wouldn't necessarily take a BA. Just have a look around a classics or history lecture if you don't believe me. We are getting the worst of their students as the most talented ones would go to the top US and UK universities for their undergraduate education where unsurprisingly business is not usually taught.

Robert M said...

In terms of relative difficulty in terms of commerce type subjects- in terms of comparative marks I would say that the hardest marking is Canterbury, that Victoria is significantly more generous and Massey more so- based on my marks in 1998-2004. Also in terms of essay writing an essay that earned me 80% in Massey stage 3 Government and Public Body Law would probably have earned me 50%-55% in a Canterbury Law paper and been assessed as stage 2 work at Canterbury. Generally Victoria ECON 300 work is assessed as 200 level credits at Canterbury.
In terms of History the subject has been destroyed over the last ten years at most NZ universities and replaced by social history and woman's history and witchcraft type studies. At the start of the century Canterbury specialised in military history, history of great men-Churchill etc, History of French and Russian Revs and Italian , German and NZ 1930 History. Using the pretext of the 'Joel Haywood affair' all the established traditional historians were driven out of the department.
I was told if I concentrated on military history my marks would be reduced and they were twice, across the board.
In terms of my academic career I studied to be a political scientist in the late 1970s and early 1980s and achieved an MA (hons). I returned to varsity in the 21c to study and understand the background of modern economics, economic liberalism, related public policy and commercial law and related full law subjects. That is what I always wanted to do and was advised to do in the 1970s but I stayed clear of Accy and Econ classes then because they full of rowdies and Knox and Selwyn type generals and hoods. In terms of commerce type subjects being the province of the less talented, that was more true then- although in basic accountancy university classes half the class can be guaranteed to get less than 15%. Don Trow was always complaining that half the accounting class couldn't master the four times table. But in the 1970s the worst students were the dentists who were the dregs of Otago Uni. At Knox they were all in the dental army officer core- and in the mid and late 1970s the uniformed Knox officers wrecked the place in every sense. Half the people admitted into second year dentistry were beta's whose only real skill was a non verbal IQ of about 112 which enabled them to scrape 50% in Bursary physics.
I finally left university in 2009 because I was better off and because I couldn't accept the Sociology type approach group work and assignments because I would have had to compromise my ideas totally and wasn't prepared to sign my name to what I didn't agree to and it wouldn't be fair to other students if they had to compromise their views.
I had written for serious publications some of academic nature and much of the work I was doing at university was for my own research interests rather than to develop academic skills.
My impression of Greg Newbold's course that what was wanted was simply regurgitation of his own hard left, compromised views. Newbold would not tolerate sources not on his approved reading list and is a hopelessly compromised individual who really accepts the police position. When Newbold said the only way to help many prisoners was for them to adopt fundamentalist religion and accept God, I just about vomited and was finished with University.