10 Jul 2016

Insight: Fraud, Fees and Student Visas

From Insight, 8:12 am on 10 July 2016

Insight - The work and residence rights that go with study visas to New Zealand have attracted thousands of what Immigration New Zealand suspects are dodgy applications from India.

But, at the same time, the government wants this country's international education market to reach an annual income of $5 billion a year.

Should more be done to protect the industry - and the students within it?

Four students stand next to each other

International students at Weltec: From left, Prameela Layippilly Sasikumar, Rosline Kalappillil Mathew, Shubham Julka and Ranjit Singh. Collectively, Indian students are spending hundreds of millions of dollars in NZ. Photo: RNZ / John Gerritsen

Rain is bringing a chill to the Wellington Institute of Technology's main campus in Petone, but Rosline from Kerala in India says she's enjoying the cold of a Hutt Valley winter. It's a different experience, she says.

A fellow student, Ranjit from Punjab, says he's impressed by New Zealand's rules and regulations. Prameela, from Kochin, agrees. "People are more disciplined," she says.

There's a quiet excitement about these students, the sense of adventure that goes with travelling half-way around the world to study in another country.

Tens of thousands end up here every year and, to do so, they've had to work through a system of agents whose work can sometimes be questionable.

While most students are full of optimism, it's quite different for another group of Indian students I meet on an equally wet day in a lawyer's office in Auckland.

This time, the sense is one of desperation, even shock, and there are no smiles from these three students. For them, the dream of overseas travel, education and perhaps immigration has taken a turn toward nightmare.

Immigration New Zealand has discovered that the students' study visa applications included fraudulent financial documents, and it has told them to leave the country before they are deported.

The men say their agents faked the documents without their knowledge and they want to stay in New Zealand.

"How can I face my parents," asks one of the men, close to tears. "I'm unable to concentrate on anything," says another.

The two groups of young people represent two very different aspects of a boom that has taken Indian student enrolments from 12,000 in 2013 to more than 29,000 last year.

Enrolments are growing spectacularly at private tertiary institutions and polytechnics, and the students are estimated to be spending hundreds of millions of dollars a year on fees and living costs.

But Immigration New Zealand is turning down thousands of study visa applications from Indians it does not believe are really coming here to study.

Street in Kerala town with tangled overhead wires,, trees and tuk tuks

Many families in India do not use banks and struggle to provide a paper trail to prove funding. Photo: RNZ / Julian Vares

It has also detected applications where the documents proving families have enough money to support their students while they are in New Zealand are faked or fraudulent.

Munish Sekhri is an education agent and licensed immigration agent, and he's not surprised by the problems New Zealand is encountering.

"We were sitting on a time bomb and it's just blown up."

Portrait photo outside

Munish Sekhri, an education agent and licensed immigration agent in NZ and India, says current deception levels follow earlier easing of rules. Photo: RNZ / John Gerritsen

Mr Sekhri says New Zealand made the mistake of loosening English-language requirements for foreign students in 2013, resulting in a surge of dodgy applications from India.

The rules have been tightened, but the damage has been done.

"A lot of shoddy agents had came out in the market, it was just like mushrooming after a rainfall," he says.

"Those are the ones who know that this is a lucrative industry, let's stick to it, let's do anything dodgy,  anything that gets a student into New Zealand."

Mr Sekhri says the government should require some form of licensing for education agents, just as it does for immigration agents.

But the Minister for Tertiary Education, Steven Joyce, has ruled that out, saying there's a degree of self-interest in immigration agents' call for licensing.

Instead, he's banking on changes to the Code of Practice that institutions must sign up to if they want to enrol foreign students.

The changes came into effect on 1 July, and Mr Joyce says they will make it easier for the New Zealand Qualifications Authority (NZQA) to hold institutions responsible for their actions and those of their agents.

He says institutions that don't behave could be removed from the code, preventing them from enrolling international students at all.

"What this does is make sure that NZQA, with supporting information from Immigration New Zealand, as the code administrator will be able to say 'no we're not happy with the practices here and if we don't see a very significant change you're placing your whole future at risk'."

But more might be needed.

Allegations of dodgy practice by some international education providers have been around for a long time and other institutions are frustrated by what they see as a lack of action.

'Very determined rogue operators'

Paul Chalmers is the spokesperson for the Auckland International Education Group, a group of about 30 private institutions specialising in the foreign student market.

"We have been consistently undermined by the practices of a number of small providers that are working with agents to allow students leeway that they should not be allowed," he says.

Portrait photo

Paul Chalmers, the spokesperson for the Auckland International Education Group, which represents private providers. Photo: RNZ / John Gerritsen

He says institutions are not bothering to ensure students attend classes, are giving them qualifications they have not earned, and are working with agents who charge the students for job placements.

Mr Chalmers says Immigration New Zealand has increased its spot-checks of institutions, but it should combine its audits with those of NZQA.

"If we can combine those two programmes and perhaps get TEC [Tertiary Education Commission] involved, we think that that would see an end to shonky providers," he says.

"We're recommending secret shoppers for the very determined rogue operators in the industry and I believe that the monitoring that is now occurring, a combined auditing programme and secret shoppers will see these guys put out of business."

NZQA says it intervenes directly where it has evidence that a provider is not meeting its obligations to provide quality education or protect the interests of its students.

It says, since 1 July 2015, 40 formal complaints about signatories to the Code of Practice have resulted in investigations at 34 institutions and 12 statutory interventions.

The statutory interventions included ordering institutions to provide financial documents or stop sub-contracting other organisations to do their teaching.

But, in most of the cases, NZQA simply asked for the education providers' side of the story, and concluded there was no problem.

However, the authority says changes to the Code of Practice have strengthened its arm.

"From 1 July, NZQA will also have new powers and will be able to remove or suspend a provider as a signatory to the Code of Practice, meaning the provider will no longer be able to enrol international students."

In addition, the authority says in August it will introduce a new, mandatory focus area on international students for its audits of tertiary institutions.

Too much pressure to seek international cash?

Tertiary Education Union president Sandra Grey is worried an over-reliance on international student enrolments is having a slow but inexorable impact on many honest high-quality education providers.

She says polytechnics and universities are so squeezed for cash that they are making allowances for international students because they don't want to lose their fees.

"Our members are seeing the pressures of their institutions having to get more international students and so they get subtle kind of cues to 'just admit that student into your course because, hey, they're not far off the mark and they'll catch up'.

"It may not be happening in large numbers yet, but the pressure is certainly there to bend the rules because the government has made our institutions reliant on international money."

But the chief executive of the two Wellington regional polytechnics, Weltec and Whitireia, Chris Gosling, disagrees.

He does not believe that institutions are feeling the pressure to pass foreign students, though he admits surprise that some institutions have 100 percent pass rates.

Portrait photo

Chris Gosling, CEO of Weltec and Whitireia Polytechnics, talks of the huge benefits of having international students studying alongside New Zealanders. Photo: RNZ / John Gerritsen

However, Mr Gosling is worried that people are losing sight of just how valuable international students are to New Zealand - and not in terms of the money they spend here.

"What gets forgotten in this whole debate is how important they are from an educational view. A New Zealand student from the Hutt Valley, coming to class and rubbing shoulders with students from India, from China, from Russia, from wherever, that's a fantastic learning experience for those students," he says.

"So I do worry that if we start getting a situation where there get to be a groundswell of thinking about international students in a negative sense, that will be bad for New Zealand and will be bad for institutions."

Education New Zealand is the organisation charged with building the foreign student business, and its chief executive, Grant McPherson, says 25-30,0000 Indian students  are expected in New Zealand over the next year.

He says that, despite the problems New Zealand is currently encountering, the potential for helping India educate its growing population and workforce is huge.

"India by, I think it's by 2022, will have 500 million people coming into the workforce. A couple of years ago we met the minister for human resource development in India and he put that number out there. He said that's not an India problem, that's a global problem."

The trip to India by The Wireless that contributed to this story was funded by the Asia New Zealand Foundation. Reporting from that trip was by Mava Moayyed. Camerawork and editing was by Julian Vares.

Follow Insight on Twitter