Hard questions for international industry

ICAC and ABC challenge export education

Terrific timing

As the international education industry braces for a beating, on Friday Austrade was promoting workshops on increasing sales.

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Grumble globally worry locally

While the national National Tertiary Education Union slammed Education Minister Christopher Pyne for funding Dr Bjorn Lomborg’s Australian Consensus Centre at the University of Western Australia the union’s state branch focuses on the issue that matters more to the locals – UWA is kicking money in while it is shutting established research operations. “Closing down centres with strong track records of publication because they are under-funded and under-staffed is a kick in the teeth to established UWA researchers,” NTEU state secretary Gabe Gooding says.

UWA researchers will be extremely concerned that this decision will impact on the reputation of the university, and will be worried that funding will necessarily be diverted from established research priorities, while students who were aghast at the fees that UWA announced it would charge in a deregulated fee environment will be questioning whether in the future any increase in their fees would be used to fund similar projects.”

Dean departs

A bare three years after Kim Walker left the Sydney Conservatorium of Music her successor as dean, Karl Kramer, is returning to the United States for “personal and family reasons”. The University of Sydney announced his departure on Friday in a statement that was polite in its praise but hardly operatic in enthusiasm and without a word from VC Michael Spence. Professor Kramer will stay on until July to ensure “an appropriate handover and transition.”

Cosmopolitan crisis

Tonight’s heavily hyped Four Corners on corrupt agents and low standards in international education will not allege anything university communities are unaware of. But it will still do the industry and the government a bunch of damage. The former, because it will present universities as accepting anybody breathing, who can pay for a place. The latter, because participants will say universities only accept substandard students because the government underfunds them and imposes market values. A couple of weeks after the feds announced a new plan to increase exports in five years this is bad indeed. As Gigi Foster, UNSW economist and long-time critic of international student standards asks, “will this be enough to generate the political will to address these problems in Australian higher education systematically, competently, and with independent oversight?” Good question.

What is even worse is the (entirely coincidental I’m sure) release of the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption paper on corruption in the state’s international education industry. ICAC sets out a wicked policy problem;

“There is no way around the fact that some of the international students the universities can attract will struggle to meet university standards; or that the universities are reliant on their revenue but limited in how far they can lower standards. There is no simple solution that will effectively eliminate the gap between the capabilities of the students and the academic demands of the universities, and no easy way to eliminate the corruption pressures created by the gap.”

Wicked, but not insoluble and ICAC sets out 12 steps to reduce corruption covering governance, administration and quality control. But this raises an obvious question – export education is an established industry so why are all the quality control fundamentals either not in place everywhere or functioning well enough? Unless of course they are. In an industry this big there will be spivs selling to shonky students – the question is how big is the problem.

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No place for profit

There are many people in higher education who are not comfortable with the profit motive, which may be why the University of Melbourne wants us to know that its 2014 “underlying operating surplus” was a mere $5.8m on $2.1bn in earnings. Good thing VC Glyn Davis does not have to answer shareholders at an AGM.

The day after

So what to do tomorrow about the imminent outcry over international student standards? Not what some industry reps have done so far in anticipation of Four Corners – argue the evidence is anecdotal, international student standards are high and that everything is under control. Denial looks desperate. One appropriate approach instead is to learn from Australian Council for Private Education and Training chief Rod Camm. With the for-profit industry taking a hammering, for convincing people into enrolling low quality courses they had no chance of passing, Mr Camm acknowledged the problem and set out what ACPET is doing to fix it. Textbook solution, if in fact Four Corner‘s has hard evidence of wrongdoing.

Another is that which Universities Australia adopted on Friday – smother with support. UA complimented the ICAC for, “its helpful contribution to the ongoing efforts of universities to reduce and mitigate the risk of fraudulent behaviour in delivering international education.” UA chief Belinda Robinson went on to add “our universities can’t earn or keep such an enviable reputation for quality unless they hold themselves to the highest and most demanding standards. Australian universities have rigorous checks and balances in place to ensure they are providing a quality, world-class educational experience – but as ICAC notes, this is an area of continual improvement.” Neatly done.

But where was incoming UA president, UWS VC Barney Glover? Probably keeping his head down and understandably so. UWS and Navitas announced a joint venture in the international pathway market last week. Professor Glover may well want to keep his university well clear of the looming controversy.

Owner-builder

One person’s paddock is another’s knowledge innovation and community precinct. At Murdoch University acting VC Andrew “the stroller” Taggart reports the university council has signed off on plans for a 44-hectare property development on its now vacant eastern precinct. Planning is underway and ground works could begin this year, if the state government gets around to amending the university’s act. For some unaccountable reason legislators back in the ‘70’s did not include “property development” in Murdoch’s mission when the university was established.

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Know something the world needs to know? Anonymity guaranteed but lots of questions asked, stephen4@hotkey.net.au