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.