In mid-2018 Murdoch University Associate Professor Gerd Schroder-Turk had a knock at his office door.
- Murdoch University had a 92 per cent increase in foreign students between 2017 and 2018
- Internal emails show Murdoch waived English entry scores for some foreign students
- Murdoch academics say they saw an increase in academic misconduct cases and students failing their courses
It was a young female student from the Punjab region in India asking to be admitted to a mathematics unit he was teaching even though she had not met all the criteria.
It should have been a routine conversation, but after more than an hour he was struggling to communicate with her.
“There was no sufficient background either in English language or in academic English and even in the very basic mathematics that she had done at high school,” he said.
“However, having said that, this woman was under the impression that she was a high achiever.
“Her eyes lit up when she told me this. She said, ‘I was so good that Murdoch University chose to give me a scholarship’.”
It was the first of a series of conversations he would have with students and staff at the university which made him believe something had shifted in the way the university was vetting international students.
He is one of three academics who have risked their jobs to speak out about the changes they saw at Murdoch.
“We noticed the change of the preparedness of the students in the classroom, and we realised that that level of preparedness is not adequate,” Associate Professor Schroder-Turk, who sits on the university’s senate, told Four Corners.
“I have strong concerns about what this means for the integrity of the academic teaching at Murdoch if not more broadly in Australia.”Do you know more about this story? Email email@example.com.
Jump in international student enrolments
At the start of last year, more than 680 international students arrived at Murdoch’s Perth campus.
It was a 92 per cent increase on the previous year. Most of the students had come from India, and many were studying postgraduate courses.
Dr Duncan Farrow, a senior mathematics lecturer and academic misconduct investigator, noticed a dramatic increase in cases of academic misconduct such as plagiarism by students by the end of first semester.
They were mainly students from the Masters of IT course.
“Over 60 per cent of the students failed at least one of their four units that they’d taken and 14 per cent had passed no units at all,” he said.
“Many of them showed me that their level of English, particularly including written English, was very poor, and in some cases they seemed to not understand the process that they were going through in terms of this academic misconduct.”
He spoke to teaching staff who said they were struggling to get some students through the coursework.
“They’re finding themselves having to redesign, in some cases, the units on the fly to accommodate the poor background a lot of the students have had,” he said.
“Many students seemed to be unable to understand the material that was put in front of them.
“There were also cases of students who apparently didn’t understand how to use a computer in any sophisticated way, so even logging on was a struggle for some students. There were also stories about students not recognising what a USB stick was.”
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Just down the corridor from Dr Farrow’s office, Professor Graeme Hocking, the head of discipline at the School of Engineering and IT, was also growing concerned about the number of cases of academic misconduct.
“One of the telltale signs is copying things off the internet and then using what are called synonymisers. Synonymisers take a section of text and then try to replace all the words with sensible English words,” he said.
“I felt that something had gone wrong in the process of the university that had led to this occurring.
“In that role as an arbiter I saw things that started to disturb me and worry me about what was going on.
“Somehow, by means I don’t know, students had been admitted who were not able to complete the work.”
What these three academics did not know was that over the preceding 12 months there had been an internal battle waged in Murdoch University’s admissions office over English entry standards.
A trove of emails seen by Four Corners show admissions staff being repeatedly asked by university management to admit students who did not meet the university’s published English entry standards.
Universities given more responsibility in visa process
Australia’s student visa system underwent a major overhaul in 2016.
The changes simplified the visa application process and gave universities the responsibility of assessing the suitability of some students, including vetting English standards, before they were granted visas.
University admissions offices are responsible for maintaining admission standards but also operate under commercial pressures. International students pay more than $7 billion in fees to Australian universities each year. Each student can be worth more than $60,000.
Murdoch’s postgraduate published entry standards require a minimum overall International English Language Testing System (IELTS) score of six, with no band below six or a similar result in another test.
Under the current system, universities set their own entry English standards but they can also waive them at their discretion.
Emails seen by Four Corners show in mid-2017, Murdoch admissions staff started receiving a string of requests to apply a more flexible interpretation of the university’s entry standards.
“I am about to meet heaps more students and I have been advising we do consider 2 bands at 5.5 as long as it is not writing,” one email read.
“We need to do this to be competitive as this is what other unis are doing even if it is not published. We can keep an eye on things.”
Documents seen by Four Corners show multiple Australian universities are waiving their own published English entry standards.
Internal emails show multiple instances of Murdoch lowering English entry scores because students had also been offered a place at other universities.
Murdoch admissions staff emailed among themselves about the growing number of English waiver requests.
“I would value some input from you on how to best manage the current environment,” one email read.
“As you can sense the risk appetite is changing.”
Admission staff were growing frustrated at what they believed was a lack of compliance.
“I think we really need to sort this constant stream of English ‘waivers’ out and simply amend the entry requirements if that is the direction MU wants/needs to go,” one admissions staff member wrote to a group of colleagues.
By January 2018 Murdoch was also accepting some students who had previously studied their undergraduate degrees in English in India as meeting the University’s English requirements, even if they had not taken an independent English test.
A concerned senior West Australian education official wrote to Murdoch University staff:
“I have learned from my sources that Murdoch have become very generous and will be waiving off English language requirement of students from Section 1 institutions,” the official said.
“In short run you will love it as the graph of your enrolment numbers will shoot up. But after a few days / weeks you will see students approaching you for release letter and enrolling for Diploma program. They will use your English waiver just to get visa. Intention will be something else.
“Couple of WA institutions did the same but burned their hands.”
At the end of January, clearly frustrated, an admissions officer wrote to her superior about one unusual case.
“This is a Bachelor of Business applicant who has previously had two visa refusals (Aus and US),” they said.
“We revoked our packaged offer (with MIT) back in December… due to GTE and fraudulent claims and now are providing a full offer with an English waiver for an IELTS reading band at 5.0.
“I am concerned that we are aware that the agent in question are (sic) actively marketing that students can gain entry with lower English requirements than published.
“This sort of operation poses not only a compliance risk but a reputational risk to the university.”
‘Setting them up for failure’
Associate Professor Schroder-Turk said he was worried academic and admissions standards had not been upheld.
“Admitting students who don’t have the right qualifications, or right prerequisites, or correct language capabilities is setting them up for failure,” he said.
“This is just not what a university should do. That’s not what education is about.”
Mid last year Associate Professor Gerd Schroder-Turk wrote a formal complaint to the university’s chancellor, outlining his concerns about the international student program.
He said the university hired a barrister to investigate.
“The university has said that a preliminary review was conducted, and that there were no adverse findings against any Murdoch staff member,” he said.
“I think this element of whether our practices are ethical or not is a far harder question to investigate.
“It’s one that requires a much more honest discourse than the question of whether or not there is a form of misconduct.”
Staff accused of not understanding ‘cultural difference’
Professor Hocking and Dr Farrow both raised concerns with their superiors last year.
“The staff were sent an email saying there was no problem with Indian students, that it was a problem of staff not understanding the cultural difference, which is more than mildly offensive to people who have been teaching international students for 20 or 30 years,” Professor Hocking said.
“It’s pretty clear that in this case … a lot of these students probably shouldn’t have been admitted.”
This year the number of international students enrolled at Murdoch in first semester doubled again.
“It’s definitely a record number of students that have been admitted. Yes, it has been growing further and is predicted to grow even further,” Dr Hocking said.
Associate Professor Schroder-Turk said international students had been a major contributor to Murdoch University’s financial turnaround.
“There’s a surplus of $15 million since last year, from that perspective, it has been a success,” he said.
Murdoch University declined to be interviewed by Four Corners but in a statement the university said:
“We welcome international students studying at Murdoch University. These students provide valued diversity and international perspective to our campuses.
“The total number of onshore students coming to Murdoch University from around the world is low when compared across the sector.
“We are committed to providing support to underpin the long-term success of our international students and to ensure they have an outstanding, positive experience studying at Murdoch University. This includes language and learning resources and assistance to support international students studying in Australia.
“Murdoch University maintains admission standards consistent with national standards for international students, along with English language requirements in line with those across the sector.
“The quality of support and teaching we provide to underpin the success of our international students has been highlighted by the 2018 Student Experience Survey results, which ranked Murdoch University among the highest universities nationally for student support. The University was rated 79.8 per cent in student support, above the national average of 73 per cent.
“(*The Student Experience Survey is an annual report of Quality Indicators for Learning and Teaching (QILT) to monitor student opinions of their educational experience at university.)
“As is the case across the sector, a small number of students require guidance and additional support to maintain the University’s academic conduct standards throughout their courses. At Murdoch University this is fewer than 0.5% of all our students.
“Our international students are equipped and supported for their studies, which is demonstrated by comparably high pass rates for both international and domestic undergraduate students.”