30 Mar 2017

NZQA calls for whistleblowers on grades fudging

2:26 pm on 30 March 2017

The Qualifications Authority has urged whistleblowers to come forward after allegations tertiary institutions are passing students who should be failed.

no caption

The teachers spoke to RNZ on condition of anonymity because they were worried they would lose their jobs if they were identified. Photo: Photo 123RF

Academic staff have told RNZ they have seen marks mysteriously awarded to failed students, been ordered to re-mark exams more leniently and told to apply lower standards to foreign students.

They said the practices were happening because institutions wanted to meet the high pass rates required by the government and to hang onto students who provided valuable income.

The Qualifications Authority has urged anyone with concerns about assessment practices in non-university tertiary education organisations to come forward so that it could investigate.

The allegations followed the publication of a Tertiary Education Union survey in which more than 60 percent of 1006 respondents said they felt they were under more pressure to pass students than they were ten years ago.

"Plagiarism, cheating, or allowing students to gain credit when it is not warranted is unacceptable," it said.

The academics spoke to RNZ on condition of anonymity, saying they feared they would lose their jobs if they were identified.

A university lecturer said he and his colleagues were ordered to re-mark hundreds of test papers after fewer than 50 percent of students passed a major exam.

He said they did it, but felt guilty doing so.

"You think 'oh yeah, maybe they had a potential half an idea about what that was about, maybe we can give them a mark', and you know you shouldn't but you do, and the pass rate went up somewhat."

A former polytechnic tutor said institutions were under pressure to meet government targets of 85 percent pass rates.

He said that was not realistic and it was prompting bad practices.

"One course I know there were students who got 35 percent overall and they pushed them up by 15 percent - they just added 15 percent."

The tutor said he also knew of a foreign student who failed a course twice but was then given credit for it using recognition of their prior experience and learning.

Another polytechnic tutor said managers at his institution had intervened to change students' results.

"I do know and have seen with my own eyes results that changed with no academic input. A student has failed a course and come back in the first term of the new year and the student has passed, so the mark has been changed by an administrative staff member."

The tutor said such behaviour was the exception rather than the rule, but it should not be happening at all.

Foreign students evaluated to lower standard - lecturer

And a university lecturer said universities and polytechnics were lowering their standards, especially for foreign students.

"I've been told these students need to be evaluated differently and to a lower standard. It's particularly a problem in courses and programmes at universities and polytechnics that are designed to capture international students.

Tertiary Education Union national president Sandra Grey.

Tertiary Education Union national president Sandra Grey. Photo: Supplied

"The combination of pressure on departments to accept borderline students, combined with pressure to pass them, results in graduating students who don't make the standard. They weren't capable of it in the first place."

Tertiary Education Union president Sandra Grey said the pressure on staff was widespread, but in most cases they resisted.

"A lot of the time our staff are pushing back, but they're doing so at a lot of personal cost," she said.

Dr Grey said tertiary education leaders and the Tertiary Education Minister, Paul Goldsmith, needed to acknowledge what was happening.

No evidence of widespread problem - Universities NZ

In texts sent to Nine to Noon, several people who said they worked in universities or polytechs claimed they were were under pressure to pass more students

"When I first started work in a prominent NZ uni," one said, "an international student failed a course in my department. Our line manager simply changed the grade when his father complained."

Another said they had been a university lecturer for 20 years and had been pressured in the last two years have been pressured to pass 10 percent more a year to meet TEC targets. "Assessments and content are both dumbed down and the final pass mark can be as low as 46 percent."

A third said if international students were caught cheating in polytech assessments they were given extra tutoring and allowed to resit.

But the chairperson of Universities New Zealand, Stuart McCutcheon, said there was no evidence the problem was widespread.

"It's unfortunate that this is being represented as a huge problem based on relatively few anecdotes from people who are not identified either in terms of themselves, or their institutions," he said.

Professor McCutcheon told Nine to Noon universities maintained high standards and did not lower their standards to pass struggling students.

"We take in students who might not be as well prepared as others. They will typcially be from rural schools, from low-decile schools, they'll be significantly Māori and Pacific students and what we do with them is to support them to meet our standards, not to lower our standards so that they can get through."

Prof McCutcheon said there might be isolated problems, but overall universities had more to lose than to gain if they compromised on quality.

Doing so would harm their international reputation and make it more difficult to attract international students in the long-term, he said.

Prof McCutcheon said the Qualifications Authority, which has called on any staff with information to come forward, did not have jurisdiction over universities. But it might be appropriate for staff to complain to the authority.

"If people felt like that these concerns existed, if they had evidence of a real problem and there was a mechanism for them to go to NZQA and say, in the safety of a relationship directly with NZQA rather than their institution, 'my institution is doing this and doing that', I think that would be perfectly reasonable."

Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs