News.com.au 22 April 2015
A NURSE who accidentally gave a 79-year-old hospital patient dishwashing liquid instead of his usual medication could not read the label on the bottle, despite being awarded a degree at an Australian university.
University academics have told Four Cornersof pressure on university lecturers to pass underperforming students and widespread plagiarism among international students desperate to complete their courses. There was also evidence of fraudulent documents being provided by overseas recruitment agents to help students gain entry to some of Australia’s top universities.
Retired lecturer Barbara Beale of the University of Western Sydney said she believed that there were students who had graduated from the university’s nursing course, one of the largest in the country, who should not have been allowed to do so.
“A lot of students end up in the aged care sector, who do we have in the aged car sector? The most vulnerable, ill people and we have students who may have been pushed through university looking after them.
“In the aged care sector there is not much supervision, very quickly they might find themselves being the only registered nurse on duty and that is something that frightens me.”
In March 2013, one UWS graduate, Bhavesh Shah, fed a cup of Morning Fresh dishwashing liquid to a private hospital patient because his poor English skills meant he could not read the label on the bottle.
At least two other graduates have also been forced out by hospitals due to poor English and dangerous practices, although the university says there have been no similar cases since 2011.
But Ms Beale said there was constant pressure at UWS to pass failing bachelor of nursing students. One student who she originally gave a mark of 2 out of 30 for one assignment, later had this changed to a pass. The paper passed through three reviewers before the fail was upheld.
“If I hadn’t really pressed that, if it had been somebody else that had less experience or less conviction … then that student would have passed,” Ms Beale said.
In a statement, UWS strenuously denied soft-marking was a problem: “UWS completely rejects the accusation that the standard of our nursing program is ‘falling’ and our nursing students are ‘weak and unsafe’.”
Peak body Universities Australia has described the program as presenting a “one-sided picture of international education in Australia”.
“It is unfortunate that Four Corners failed to acknowledge Australia’s global leadership as a provider of high quality, and highly regarded international education,” University Australia chief executive Belinda Robinson said in a statement.
“The list of agents terminated by Australian universities over the recent period indicates that Australia universities have robust systems for identifying and stamping out fraud and unethical behaviour.”
The report also shed light on the murky world of the offshore agents used by Australian universities to recruit hundreds of thousands of students, mainly from China.
In one case, a Beijing agent who represents universities including Monash, Queensland, Sydney, Newcastle, Southern Cross, Australian Catholic University, Australian National University and University of Technology, Sydney, was caught on tape saying he would accept a forged school transcript if a student had a poor academic record.
Agents also discussed how to get around the English language requirements at universities.
Group of Eight chief executive Vicki Thomson said its universities made no apology for using the on-the-ground skills of overseas agents to help choose students.
“However, at all times our global reputation is paramount … for that reason Group of Eight universities act swiftly to address any issues that are brought to their attention,” Ms Thomson said in a statement.
“It should not be ignored that international education is Australia’s third largest exporter. Getting it right is paramount.”
Dr Zena O’Connor, who teaches at the University of Sydney, told Four Corners the income stream generated by international students was huge.
At Sydney University, international students make up a quarter of all enrolments while at RMIT in Melbourne they make up 50 per cent.
“I’m staggered by the increase in plagiarism. To start with, in my experience, it was a very small proportion, you know, maybe two, three, four per cent. I would peg it now at being much, much higher, well over 50 per cent. And some of the cases of extreme plagiarism where a student has plagiarised at least 80 per cent if not up to 100 per cent of their paper, that proportion is growing, and that level of extreme plagiarism I didn’t see five or ten years ago.”
Dr O’Connor has not instituted formal proceedings against any students for plagiarism because she says she was told to do all she could to pass them.
Alex Barthel, who formerly ran the language centre at the University of Technology, Sydney, told Four Corners he had been a longstanding advocate for higher English language entry standards for universities.
“Academic staff increasingly are frustrated by the fact that they are there to teach pharmacy or engineering or IT or whatever they’re teaching and they’re basically saying, ‘It’s not my job to help somebody with 65 spelling errors on the first page of an assignment. It’s not my job to teach them basic English grammar’.”
A major report by the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption last week, Learning the Hard Way, reported significant risks of corruption within institutions.
“There is a gap – at least in some courses – between the capabilities of many students and academic demands,” the report said.
“Students may be struggling to pass, but universities cannot afford to fail them.
“There is pressure for some international students to pass courses that are beyond their academic capabilities, pressure on staff within universities in NSW to find ways to pass students in order to preserve budgets.”
The vice-chancellors of the University of Western Sydney and the Australian Catholic University declined requests for an interview with Four Corners.