Fraud in international education – The tip of the iceberg?

Until recently, it has been easy to ignore the impact of fraud on international education given that little systematic data exists on its breadth and pervasiveness. In addition, raising the issue of fraud is hardly a promising way to gain tenure or to impress a lawmaker who is interested in maximising national income from international students.

But once comprehensively surveyed, the magnitude and reach of fraud is becoming clear.

For example, research suggests that the majority of applications from a number of large student-sending countries are either significantly embellished or outright fraudulent. As a result, tens of thousands of international students, having passed through visa and admissions systems, are enrolled all over the world based on school transcripts, financial support statements, recommendation letters or test scores that are untrue.

Given the gatekeeper function of higher education in general and the attractions of attaining a degree from a Western, ideally ranked university in particular, the pressure to compete on illegitimate terms has increased markedly.

As a result, Australia and then the UK experienced waves of fraud and reacted strongly to these in recent years. At the moment, Canada and the US are experiencing a surge of fraud issues.

A sensible yet impossible to answer question is: ‘What is the actual rate of fraud among international applicants and students?’

To answer this question, test providers would have to open their books, education providers would have to systematically share data on fraudulent behaviour and governments would have to provide in-depth reporting on visa denials. There has been a great degree of reluctance to do so, sometimes for understandable reasons such as national security.

As a result, gauging the pervasiveness of fraud has to rely on the broad gathering of evidence, which ranges from visa denial data and research such as a report on admissions fraud by Chinese students conducted by Zinch, to interviews with dozens of faculty members and administrators around the world.

Another data point is the growing realisation that English language test scores have become increasingly unreliable and, in some instances, effectively useless.

The data suggests that students are willing to pay large amounts to obtain high-scoring test results. Amounts reported range from US$20,000 for an LSAT (US law school admissions test), to US$60,000 for the entrance exam at a leading Indian medical school, or US$1,000 to supply fake financial capability documentation for student visa applications to Canada or Australia.

Drivers of fraud

The surge in fraud that has taken place over the last decade can be attributed to four key drivers.

First, the imbalance between quality higher education study places relative to applicants provides an imperative for students to improve their admissions chances through illegitimate means. This behaviour is simply more visible in the case of international students, given the added testing and validation layers they face, amplified by the desirability of the ‘prize’.

Second, the economic rise of Asia and recently parts of Africa has resulted in a surge of applicants from countries with large populations as well as historically high rates of fraudulent testing and admissions behaviour. In this sense, fraud moved from a manageable volume into the mainstream of international education.

Third, the by now near-universal availability of internet-based tools and content as well as mobile technology has negated transactional constraints on fraudulent behaviour. From Photoshop to papers being sold online to smartphones being used for test fraud, the usage of technology by applicants and students committing fraud has recently outpaced awareness and eventual countermeasures by education providers and testing agencies.

The fourth driver is based on the tacit and sometimes even explicit collusion of stakeholders who place the economic contributions from international students above the integrity of a test regime, admissions system or institutional brand. The motivation is fairly obvious – money.

In 2010, in-country direct revenues from international higher education students amounted to an estimated US$80 to US$90 billion globally, according to an ICG estimate. It bears noting that there is hardly a – legitimate – global industry of this size that operates with the lack of unified standards and quality control mechanisms that international education has.

Fraudulent behaviour in international education manifests itself in a wide range of actions and activities.

Plagiarism is one of the two most often identified instances of academic fraud, which is by no means specific to international students. Over the past decade, plagiarism has become a rampant problem across campuses worldwide, driven by the emergence of websites selling papers or ghostwriting services or the by now common ‘classroom presentation by courtesy of Wikipedia’.

As a result, some students in recently graduated cohorts have become arguably better at misappropriating intellectual property than at formulating their own thoughts.

Testing fraud has rapidly become another major problem.

One has to marvel at the creativity of test-takers (or those hired to take a test) who deploy James Bond-like gadgets or are involved in the large-scale memorisation of illegally obtained test documents. Other well-reported issues include identity fraud or the breach of the integrity of test companies’ operations from within.

As a result, especially language test results from some Asian countries are now often deemed so unreliable that some universities have begun systematically retesting students after they arrive on campus.

This list could go on and cover everything from classroom-based fraud to students abusing study permits to enter a country for the sole purpose of finding work.

The point is that the benefits from fraudulent behaviour typically outweigh potential penalties and, in some instances, fraud is an essential act required to reach the desired goal, that is, admission to a specific institution or a study permit for a certain country.

Like water flowing to the lowest point, fraudulent behaviour will continue to penetrate every layer of international education.

Everyone loses

With fraud becoming a pervasive problem, the broad impact of this trend needs to be stressed because, in the end, the unpleasant reality is that everyone loses. Why is that?

For one, students who cheat their way into programmes, which subsequently often overtax their abilities, or commit substantial fraud to complete a degree, will not be properly educated. This hurts eventual employers as well as societies that put their faith in the quality of a supposed education.

Education providers face a multitude of problems, ranging from a loss of brand integrity to effectively treating students unequally.

The latter has already resulted in spats in the media and unease among faculty members, with the potential for more conflict. The former is coming to light through anecdotal evidence that employers are negatively responding to a lack of quality among international graduates. Universities that do not properly address fraud risk the real danger of damaging their brands with employers for many years to come.

Testing providers, especially those who seem to pay more lip service to combating fraud than others, will find the validity of their tests increasingly challenged – to the point at which education institutions will move on to new and different verification regimes, negating the services of these providers. There are first indications that this ‘tipping point’ is being reached.

National education systems will lose in terms of brand and integrity, if they have not already done so. By now, a good number of student-sending countries, ranging from Nigeria to China, evoke little trust in the credentials of their students.

At the receiving end, Australia and the UK were among the earlier countries taking a hard policy line against visa and immigration fraud. The spotlight is now on policy and institutional responses from Canada and the United States.

No easy solutions

There are, unfortunately, no easy solutions to combating fraud in international education.

Powerful economic imperatives on behalf of a series of stakeholders, the technical ease of committing fraud, and a lack of tools with which to map and measure fraud activities provide plenty of incentives to cheat or circumvent assurance and control mechanisms.

What might help are the following four actions:

First, stakeholders need to acknowledge the fact that fraud is not just more widespread than assumed or hoped for, but that a lack of action will do lasting damage to brands and reputation.

This applies especially to higher education institutions that face the prospect of lasting damage to their brands with employers and existing alumni. While cultures and economic rationales differ from campus to campus, a general initial measure would be to commence a cross-campus dialogue about the presence and impact of fraud.

Second, educational institutions and testing providers need to take a more open approach to mapping and measuring fraud in order to design effective countermeasures.

The best way to respond to immediate fraudulent behaviour in this regard is not to hit at a single instance – such as banning a specific test provider – but to connect the dots between testing, admissions and classroom behaviour.

By combating fraud with a comprehensive feedback loop approach, deep pattern detection can be applied and mapped to the underlying economic and behavioural drivers of fraud.

Third, stakeholders need to adjust, newly create and – critically – enforce policies aimed at maintaining institutional integrity and the quality of teaching and research.

An initial step should be updating policies such as honour codes to today’s realities. Another step is to ensure that policies are well communicated across an organisation, incoming international students and other stakeholders in the recruiting and admissions process.

Fourth, the above actions need to be pursued with an integrated approach, involving employers as much as visa-granting agencies and test providers.

While fraud can never be entirely eliminated, mitigating, if not minimising, its effects is critically dependent on raising both the integrity of the overall quality assurance landscape as well as specifically that of the weakest link in a given landscape.

* Dr Daniel J Guhr is managing director of the Illuminate Consulting Group, an international science, research and academic strategy consulting firm advising the leadership of teaching and research institutions, foundations, governments and public agencies on policy, development and competition issues. Illuminate has just been retained by a government to write a full-scale assessment of many of the issues raised in the article.