Editorial: Education fraud inquiry on a go-slow

Last updated 07:54 26/01/2014

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OPINION: The New Zealand Qualifications Authority (NZQA) is still looking through material it seized eight months ago in an investigation into a far-reaching cheating scandal.

In May last year, the authority and police began an inquiry into an Auckland outfit that offered academic "solutions" on order through a Chinese-language website.

It was a sophisticated operation in which an organised network of clever ghost- writers provided complete assignments and essays for mainly Chinese-speaking students. Its existence is a serious threat to any education system.

Last year a Sunday Star-Times investigation revealed not only that the operation was brazenly working from an Auckland office on a busy city street, but we paid for and received an essay written to order. We also interviewed a remorseful ghost-writer about his work.

The business appears to have operated in New Zealand for many years, at least since 2007. Hundreds of international students at many New Zealand tertiary institutions will have used the service, meaning their qualifications were falsely obtained. Institutions have clearly have been duped and their failure to discover the fakes goes to their very integrity.

So how have the New Zealand authorities reacted?

Although lots of noises were made about how seriously everyone was taking the allegations - the usual, trite PR refrain - the Star-Times understands the investigation is not exactly progressing in leaps and bounds.

Educational institutions and the NZQA were warned about the scheme well before our investigation and the question now is whether the old reluctance to investigate has been overcome. It is now a real test for the Government and institutions.

Tertiary Education Minister Steven Joyce made strong noises when our investigation was published and has been kept informed by the NZQA, but his staffer would not answer our question as to whether Joyce was happy with progress so far.

It was interesting to hear the calls for understanding after the investigation. Academic cheating was regarded differently in other cultures, it was said. Some educationists believe we should make allowances. That would be a slippery slope. Eight months after the revelations, little progress in the investigation appears to have been made. The NZQA refuses to say even how many investigators are working on the inquiry.

The public has no way of knowing how seriously the matter is being taken.

It would be understandable if the universities and polytechnics just wanted the whole uncomfortable mess to go away.

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The need to cancel degrees or diplomas and admit that processes for detecting fraud were poor would be embarrassing. Tougher measures could mean the loss of sorely needed overseas student fees and New Zealand could lose its reputation as a soft touch.

A deeper question would also arise. How come anybody thought this was a good idea?

New Zealand university study, if it is worth anything, should be taxing even for high-performing home-grown students brought up speaking English. How, then, were students from other countries expected to cope with challenging study in a language in which they were not proficient?

To maintain the flow of international students, and money, into New Zealand, compromises must have been made. It makes you wonder how many.

- Sunday Star Times

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