Authorities at universities in Australia’s New South Wales state should separate the different functions of their offices serving international students in order to cut down on corruption and mistreatment of those students, according to a new report by an academic corruption watchdog organisation.

In its report, the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption recommends that universities separate the academic compliance and incentive functions of their international student officers to avoid the risk of corruption.

“To intertwine compliance and profit rather than separating them, and to reward profit over compliance, can be conducive to questionable and corrupt behaviour,” the report’s authors wrote.

This report comes on the heels of another damning investigation of practices affecting international students among Australia’s universities, conducted by ABC’s Four Corners programme and released to the public just a few weeks. That investigative report found, among other problems, that corrupt agents were helping international students with low levels of English gain entry to Australian universities, despite language requirements for incoming foreign students.

Both reports are particularly important considering the growing numbers of international students enrolling in Australian universities. The number of international students in New South Wales has increased 13-fold from 1988 to 2014, with foreign students accounting for 17 percent of the state’s university operating revenues as of 2013.

According to the ICAC report, this economic boom has also led to the problem of universities beginning to depend financially on income from international students, meaning they “cannot afford to fail” foreign students, even if they are not performing up to academic standards.

As universities face increased pressure to step up their international recruitment and attract more foreign students, some are also not being as strict with their language standards as before, accepting students with IELTS scores well below the recommended level for linguistically demanding academic courses. 

“For almost 30 years, [universities] have experienced problems such as fake qualifications, questionable agent behaviour, visa-driven enrolments, nepotism in offshore campuses [and] loss of intellectual property to partners,” the report states.

It says that some universities have also unintentionally been involved in bribery, cheating and plagiarism and exploitation of students, among other issues.

ICAC has recommended that universities restrict the number of education agents with which they work on international student recruitment, as well as establishing closer relationships with trusted agents, increasing their oversight and monitoring of agents and strengthening partnerships with overseas institutions in order to decrease reliance on agents as a go-between. Sites like Study International are also contributing to this effort to increase transparency in international student recruitment, by connecting universities directly with pre-vetted students who meet Australia’s international student requirements.

“Going forward it’s critical that all universities do more to run their international marketing independently as oppose to using third party agents”, said Study International managing director James Craven. “That’s the path to long term, sustainable international recruitment for Australian institutions.”

One silver lining of the ICAC report is that its demonstration that universities have identified cases of fraud and corruption “verifies the effectiveness of many of the control mechanisms in place”, according to Brett Blacker, president of the International Education Association of Australia.

The problems highlighted in these two reports are, of course, not unique to Australia. As universities around the world, particularly those in English-speaking countries, have joined the international student arms race to broaden their alumni networks and attract more students who will pay high-priced international student fees, the risks of corruption and cutting corners have become more significant than ever.

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