Lecturer claims pressure to accept substandard work from overseas students

Some university tutors are pressurised to accept substandard work by overseas students for financial reasons, BBC Wales has been told.

One lecturer claims exams are simplified or dropped from some Masters business courses.

He claims pressure by university authorities to secure funding from international students means standards of some courses are lowered.

It is claimed this involves students struggling with English.

The lecturer, who gave an anonymous interview for fear of losing his job, said concerns were shared by colleagues.

He said: "What we're finding is that we can't teach the students because their English language ability is so low".

The lecturer said the exam elements of MBA courses were being removed, with assessment focusing entirely on coursework instead.

He added: "Typically exams are dropped from MBAs because frankly students with English language problems find it very, very difficult to pass examinations. So who writes that coursework?

"We now have quite sophisticated plagiarism software but that doesn't guarantee that they are not getting somebody else to write that for them".

The lecturer claims that the academic standards of some courses at British universities have suffered in recent years as universities concentrate on attracting foreign students.

"Internationalisation in itself is absolutely necessary for any modern university - however, this is not at any cost.

"We should be focusing on quality and I would say that UK higher education has suffered significant reputational damage as a result of the recruitment policies by many universities. The question I'm asking is can we recover from this?

"Universities are not profit-making organisations - they have to sort out their own acts. Quality is paramount - it is fundamental - we cannot lose that focus on quality".

According to the lecturer, other academics were concerned about the present situation but very few were prepared to talk openly.

"Everybody knows it's going on - very few people are actually standing up and being counted."

Source of income

International students are an important source of income for British universities and they have to pay higher fees compared to British and EU students.

In 2010-11, there were a total of 48,580 overseas undergraduates studying in the UK - about 11% of the total undergraduate population - but they generated 32% of universities' fee income.

Overall foreign students contribute an estimated £5bn a year to the wider economy, including fees.

This BBC Wales News investigation has been wide-ranging and looked to find out if there was any truth in the anecdotal stories of standards at Welsh universities being eroded because of the high numbers of foreign students now being admitted.

After an initial delay, Cardiff, Aberystwyth, Swansea universities and the University of Wales, Trinity St David have now agreed to let BBC Wales see their MBA dissertations, and we will be looking at this work in the next few weeks.

Both Cardiff Metropolitan University and University of Wales, Newport have told us that we can see a sample of dissertations on display. BBC Wales has asked these universities to grant us access to all their MBA dissertations.

The University of Glamorgan has refused a BBC Wales request to see its students' MBA dissertations. They decided to subject the request to the restrictions of the Freedom of Information Act and say that it would be too costly and time consuming to grant allow us to see them. An appeal has been submitted.

Swansea Metropolitan University has also decided to deal with our request under the terms of the Freedom of Information Act, and BBC Wales awaits its reply. The university recently announced its merger with the University of Wales, Trinity St David.

The only university in Wales which has all its masters dissertations on public display is Bangor University. The lecturer who spoke to the BBC has never worked at Bangor.

Grammatical errors

Twenty dissertations at Bangor University Library, submitted by international students between 2009-2011, included fundamental grammatical errors, and parts of some dissertations were written in such a way that paragraphs were almost unintelligible.

In some cases, the leather-bound titles of published dissertations made little sense.

The essays were submitted by international students who obtained postgraduate Masters of Business Administration (MBA), Masters of Law, Masters of Science and Masters of Arts degrees at the university's Business and Law schools.

According to Prof Nick Bourne, a former law lecturer and ex-Welsh Conservative leader: "'There are pieces of work here which do not appear to be anywhere near the sort of level that a Masters qualification would require - anyway near.

"And I think they've got to answer how these pieces of work have been passed, how their whole process of moderation has worked and the examination process has worked. What supervision were these students given? What assistance they were given?

"Because it does raise some real concerns and we can't have dual standards in education - they've got to be a constant standard - a constant high standard at Bangor and other Welsh universities''.

Professor John Thornton, the head of Bangor University's Business School told BBC Wales the university has excellent internal procedures regarding quality assurance, and that the number of weak dissertations is small.

'I certainly wouldn't deny there are problems with some of the dissertations that we receive from our foreign students," he said.

Image caption An extract from one of the published Bangor dissertations

"Also there are some problems with dissertations we receive from home students. But I would say it's a relatively small number of the dissertations we receive. We are not looking for fine English prose from our students. Dissertations that are badly written will lose some marks but we're primarily interested in the analytical content of those dissertations."

According to Prof Thornton, each dissertation is examined by two internal examiners, and a sample of dissertations is sent to be marked by an external examiner as well.

Spell-checking software

When asked if students were expected to use spell-checking software to correct their dissertations, Professor Thornton explained:

'You would expect students to do that. Unfortunately not all students do it. But we're not going to fail a student simply because he's failed to do that. Under our procedures the student receives supervision during the course of their dissertation and the student takes the decision to submit his dissertation.

"In some cases those students unfortunately bind their dissertations and send them to us prior to our supervisor having a final review.'

Like many British universities, Bangor University has developed an internationalisation strategy in order to attract foreign students. Last year the university opened an office in Beijing, and Chinese students make up the majority of international students studying at the city.

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Media captionThe lecturer, whose words are spoken by an actor to protect his anonymity, speaks of his concerns about higher education in Wales

The university's business school is the largest recruiter of international students, recruiting 60% of all foreign students, and the university's strategic plan highlights the need to increase the number of fee-paying students from outside Europe by 50% by 2015.

The Higher Education Funding Council for Wales (Hefcw) said the quality and standards of education provided in Welsh higher education are assessed by the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) as part of the institutional review.

"Institutions would be expected to deal with any concerns raised through normal quality processes," said a spokesman.

"If examiners, students, staff, or any other parties have concerns about issues of quality and standards at a university, they are free to raise their concerns through the QAA's Concerns scheme."

The QAA said it worked with the higher education sector to safeguard standards and improve quality in UK higher education.

"We guide and regularly review universities and other providers to ensure that they are meeting UK requirements for higher education," said a spokesman.

"QAA has not been approached in relation to any issues at the University of Wales Bangor. However, as part of the drive to maintain and enhance standards, QAA does investigate concerns about standards and quality raised by students, staff, or other parties.

"Where such concerns indicate serious systemic or procedural problems - and are supported by evidence - we will conduct a detailed investigation."