Private school rorts revealed

One of Auckland's biggest international schools has been closed amid revelations that students on its business courses were not even expected to attend to gain their qualifications.

The Sunday Star-Times has obtained an internal report by the former business programme leader of the API Institute of Education which describes how pass marks and business diplomas were issued to students who either were not on class lists, attended sporadically, or had a history of "chronic failure".

Reams of marked papers by A-grade students were made available for failed students to copy, and using these, some students went from E grades to A, the report reveals.

Academic staff are not implicated – rather a small number of mostly Chinese administration staff. Police have been called in to investigate some aspects of the scandal, including allegations that student fees paid in advance are missing.

The collapse of API comes after the recent closures of two similar schools, the New Zealand Academy of Studies and the City Language Academy, which were exposed last year in the TV2 programme Illegal NZ providing a NZ Diploma in Business to an undercover reporter who paid $12,000 but never attended any courses.

Tertiary Education Minister Steven Joyce said despite three schools being closed for fraudulent practices, he was confident "the vast majority" of private training establishments (PTEs) operated "appropriately and effectively". He said action by the New Zealand Qualifications Authority (NZQA) to cancel the organisations' registrations showed that "inappropriate behaviour will not be tolerated".

But sources say the NZQA is not equipped to identify such rorts and they are endemic in the $2 billion private tertiary education sector.

NZQA deputy chief executive Tim Fowler said API's registration was cancelled in February and there were "serious concerns" regarding results reported in the year to December for 148 students.

Asked if money was paid for false qualifications, Fowler said: "NZQA has no evidence that money specifically `changed hands', rather student fees were low and attendance was not required in order to gain the qualification."

It is understood that some legitimate students have discovered that fees they had paid in advance had not been lodged with the Public Trust as they should have been. Fowler said eight students had "possible fee shortfalls".

The NZQA was working with students to place them with other schools.

The API Institute was one of the biggest PTEs in Auckland, with 200 students and more than 20 staff, many of whom are owed thousands of dollars in wages. The school also provided management, design, early childhood education, motor engineering and English courses.

The directors of the school were Todd Xu and Alex Zhang. Contacted at his home, Xu declined to comment, and Zhang could not be reached.

Gill Franklin, who resigned as principal of API in December after discovering the irregularities and alerting NZQA, said she believed similar rorts happened in the industry, and institutions were under "huge pressure" to improve achievement records.

"I think it does happen in a number of schools – they're clever at hiding it. It's very hard when you've got different languages, anyone who's not in the loop doesn't understand.

"Students come to New Zealand with an expectation they will get a qualification without attending. Some of them are very wealthy and very arrogant; they'll lie through their teeth."

Franklin said students were able to wield power over schools. "If a student is pissed off they were caught cheating or whatever... they can go on the internet and accuse the school of stealing their money. The students can swing the market – too many schools are offering the same courses, fighting for students already in New Zealand."

She said a "seven-day rule", which allowed a student to switch schools within a week of arriving, was open to abuse.

"[Recruitment] agents contact them on the internet and befriend them. They say `when you arrive I'll meet you at the airport and get you a refund, we'll split the money and I'll get you into a cheaper school'."

In the internal report into false reporting of results at API, former business programme leader Sarah Cozens describes a "proliferation" of education recruitment agents visiting the school with their clients and insisting on meeting Chinese administration staff behind closed doors, and bullying of those staff.

Despite two such agents being named in Cozens' report, the NZQA has no jurisdiction over them and, unlike immigration agents, they do not have to be registered.

A spokesperson for Joyce said education providers were responsible for ensuring agents they used complied with codes of practice.

Sunday Star Times