NZQA wants more evidence about cheating service
BEN HEATHER, ANDREA VANCE AND TOM HUNT
A tip-off about a "cheating service" for university students was not acted on because of a lack of evidence, the New Zealand Qualifications Authority says.
Police and the New Zealand Qualifications Authority (NZQA) have launched an inquiry following an investigation which uncovered the scheme.
NZQA chief executive Dr Karen Poutasi said it was asking the Sunday Star Times for evidence concerning Assignment4U, a company which writes original assignments to order for Chinese-speaking tertiary students in New Zealand.
Poutasi confirmed the authority had first received a complaint about the company in February and had alerted universities. However no evidence of illegal cheating had been "detected", she said.
Following the investigation the authority would be looking more closely at whether further action was required.
Tertiary education minister Steven Joyce said his office was not alerted until Friday when called by Fairfax. He said he would have "preferred" a heads up earlier from NZQA.
"They normally provide a heads up on any issues occurring on international education. For some reason they didn't on this one, possibly because the date of the issues. But I still would have preferred to be told."
He added: "It appears that it is [still ongoing] and that's obviously a concern. But in terms of the extent of it and the amount that is going on, obviously that's really a matter of conjecture at the moment."
A former "ghost writer" said he sent a letter in February with his concerns and evidence to a number of New Zealand universities including Auckland University, Auckland University of Technology (AUT), Unitec, Massey University and the police but had heard nothing back.
Massey, Auckland and AUT have said they were not aware of having received tip-offs, but Unitec today acknowledged getting a letter alerting staff to the possibility of widespread cheating.
A spokesman for Unitec said they had "immediately initiated an internal investigation". "The investigation found that the risk of this happening at Unitec was low," he said.
"We take these allegations extremely seriously and notified NZQA of our concerns given the sector-wide implications."
The investigation featured discussions with staff and analysis of IT systems, which specifically looked at whether anyone had accessed the Assignment4U website or been in contact with them.
Auckland tertiary students spoken to today had no knowledge of a well-organised, commercial cheating service.
Guy Davies, a first-year student at Auckland University, said he had heard of individuals freelancing to make some extra cash but nothing more sophisticated.
A Japanese student, who did not want to be named, said a similar business producing tailored assignments had been uncovered in his home country but he was "shocked" to hear of a similar thing happening in New Zealand.
Only one pupil admitted knowledge of Assignments4U.
"I've heard about it. My friends have spoken about it but I don't know anyone who's used it," AUT student Liang Yue said.
Massey University Vice-Chancellor Steve Maharey said the university would be checking this week whether any Massey staff had been recipient of a tip-off letter.
''Until we do that investigation and we check very carefully, all universities are the same - our reputations are what we are concerned about and we all take cheating very seriously,'' Maharey said.
He did not wish to speculate on whether any Massey students had used the service. He had not personally been made aware of any cheating allegations of that nature.
''All universities take this extremely seriously... cheating has been a part of the university system since year dot,'' Maharey said.
''It is always on the cards that people will get someone else to do something for them, that's why we have a range of assessments in place. Universities have always had this [issue] and staff are always trying to make sure that it is the student's work.''
Tertiary Education Union national president Lesley Francey said she was ''horrified but not surprised'' when she read about the scheme this morning.
She laid the blame at the feet of the National government which she said had reduced tertiary funding by 20 per cent since coming to power.
''The institutions are now being made to make up the difference by taking international students.''
Union members were feeling pressured to pass students that would have otherwise failed because of the importance institutions placed on the retention and success of students.
While no lecturers would turn a blind eye to cheating many would be reluctant to raise issues with management - such as a student with inadequate English - because it may go against the ''bums in seats'' ethos, she claimed.
Funding cuts also meant lecturers no longer led tutorials, with casual tutors now taking them. Many would not recognise students, especially as tutorials had now grown in numbers.
- Fairfax Media