Page last updated at 08:15 GMT, Friday, 20 June 2008 09:15 UK

Call for action on degree 'fraud'

Students at screen
Hundreds of people have commented

An influential MP says ministers must "take seriously" the "fraud" of foreign students with poor English gaining postgraduate qualifications in the UK.

Phil Willis, head of the innovation, universities, science and skills committee, said there was "unease" about the way standards were policed.

Hundreds of people have e-mailed the BBC to back claims by a whistleblowing lecturer at a leading UK university.

The government has said it is up to the institutions to monitor quality.

Mr Willis said: "The government must take this issue seriously.

It is critically important that where there is evidence of malpractice - or fraud, which is what this is - that it is teased out as quickly as possible
Phil Willis
"The quality of our higher education product - with several of our universities in the top 100 universities in the world - is dependent on the quality of research and the quality of the students doing the research, and that must not be jeopardised. "

"It is hugely disappointing that the academic cannot report this to his or her own university or to Hefce [England's funding body for higher education].

"It is critically important that where there is evidence of malpractice - or fraud, which is what this is - that it is teased out as quickly as possible."

Standards

Liberal Democrat Mr Willis added: "There is unease at the moment at the way higher education is policed for standards.

"There is a need for universities themselves to put into place transparent plans to assess and monitor the quality of all post-graduate students to make sure that they reach rigorous standards for post graduate work."

E-mails to the BBC News website suggest the practice of awarding post-graduate degrees to overseas students with the most basic of English is so widespread that it is taken for granted - to the detriment of all involved.

Hundreds have been in touch to back claims by a whistleblower at one of the country's most famous universities.

The universities say there are rigorous procedures to prevent such things.

But this is regarded with incredulity in many of the e-mails, most of which are from current or former students, lecturers or course administrators with first hand knowledge of the system.

Anti-plagiarism

The root cause is said to be the pressure to retain the fee income from foreign students, who typically pay three times what home students pay for their courses.

Some claim the academics supervising postgraduate courses ghost write or heavily edit their students' work to make it comprehensible, or that plagiarism is ignored or not punished.

Another allegation is that students buy essays or theses overseas, written in languages other than English, then have them translated and submit them in the UK as their own work.

This circumvents the anti-plagiarism software which checks what has been submitted against previous academic work - in English.

Here is a selection from the hundreds of comments received. You can contact us using the form at the end:


As an academic who has recently arrived at a Russell Group University from a major US University, I completed agree but I would warn that this is not only about international students. The standards of English across the postgraduate student body are particularly bad and I am always asking myself "how did these students get an undergraduate degree with this standard of English?". English Language, however, is only one of many problems in the system. While I have been impressed with the standards that the national Quality Assurance Agency for HE set for masters students, many masters fail to develop students to these standards and the QAA in their reviews do nothing to assure that these standards are being met. The independent review by the QAA is at most based on the ability of the University to hide the issues at hand. Universities UK are there for the Vice-Chancellors of these university to make sure that all of these negatives in the system are not broadcast to the public. It is truly time for academics across the country to let everyone know what is happening in the name of university education.
Simon, London

I work as an administrator at a University and I know that there is a huge push to recruit international students, most of which do not speak English. The first question is how on Earth are they expected to understand and produce University level material when they can barely say hello? Yes most are enrolled on English courses when they enrol, but to be honest the courses are pretty worthless and most pass, so the University do not lose their fees. Shocking, especially when some extremely intelligent students are losing out on University life because they are not able to afford to come to University.
Janice, Wales

I am a course administrator for a postgraduate MSc at a 'new' university in Scotland. The pressure has been increasing of late to recruit overseas students to increase the financial coffers. The money spent on the expansion of university international offices to welcome and assist overseas students has a not so 'hidden' agenda. However, our particular MSc requires students from overseas whose mother tongue is not English to fulfill a minimum requirement of grade 7 IELTS. I do not believe that this is a criterion across the board. The academic standards at UK universities at all levels, in particular at taught Masters' courses, are being gradually eroded. It is time that we reverse this trend now before it is too late.
Anon

I face these pressures every day as a Senior Lecturer. Plagiarism is rife and excused on the basis of cultural differences and difficulties in expression in English. Most of my colleagues now do not bother to pursue the numerous cases they find. Easier to follow the University's advice to ensure the majority of degrees should be awarded at distinction level.
Martin, Lancaster

As a lecturer in engineering I deal with many overseas students (both from EU and further afield) and am well aware of the language problem as well as the issue surrounding plagarism. We do fail students still, but they have the right to a second attempt and many try to get more. They feel because they are paying so much money that they have the right to a degree - and that goes for home students as well. We require a certain IELTS level but are fairly certain at times that students get someone else to sit the test for them in order to achieve the correct level.

With plagarism we like most insitutions use the electronic software to check, but there is still an issue particularly with material that is not widely available. We get suspicious about well written material when we know the student's English is poor, but there is an insistence on evidence before the administrators will let us penalise the students. So much of our academic judgement has been lost and, as many have said, the fact that universities are forced to act as businesses can be seen as the root of much. Students will resort to appeals and every possible avenue to get what they think is their 'right'.
R, UK

I come to this country just over year ago and to enhance my courier prospects decided to take an MSc course in Accounting. I had always had concerns about level of my English, however, was very surprised to find out that two native speakers who were taking IELTS for emigration proposes had only achieved 6.5 and admitted that that reading and listening parts of the test were particularly difficult... the course I have applied for required 7.0...and let me reassure you it is impossible to get somebody else to do the test for you... my photo identity was checked three times... Sorry guys, things not exactly as you describing...
Lyudmila Cherazina, London

I did my post graduate 3 years ago and there was a Korean girl with very poor English. She had her first degree in MicroBiology from a university in Korea and was accepted onto the International Marketing Masters degree. She failed every single module and only in June was it discovered that she had faked her IELTS results. The university had taken her on with fake results and a Bachelor degree in Microbiology, despite only admitting UK students with a 2:1 in the same discipline. She paid 3k more than the UK students.

She persistently plagiarised as she could barely write a gramatically correct sentance and wasn't able to put together a coherent presentation due to her complete lack of English. When you read her essays she submitted it was a joke because she could barely write a sentance when taking notes in class. When asked to read out 'her' work, she struggled with all the big words. It was obvious she had plagiarised.

Her poor written and spoken English pulled down our group project mark considerably (fail) and we took it to the board and contested it. They ended up throwing her off the course and allowing us to re-do the project. When challenged as to how she got on the course, the course lecturer admitted they knew she had fake results but it happens every time as the university does not turn away international students because of fees. ...
Jo, London

Whilst all this is true, it has come to my attention that it is not the fault of those seeking to recruit international students. The problem is with how we assess postgraduate degrees. As much as degree awards differ (you have MRes and MAs in the Arts and MSc/PGDip/PGCert/MPH/MA in the Sciences), so do the classifications awarded. Within the same institution, for example, a student on an MRes course might be able to either pass/ fail in one school and to pass/ fail/ gain merit & distinction in another. There's no central understanding of what constitutes a PG degree; the reserved understanding is that all PG degrees are academically rigorous & worthwhile, and so the issue is ignored. Thus, a lack of proficiency from any type of student can go unnoticed.

As a PG student myself, defending the degree I am working my socks off for is part of the undertaking. The elusive transferable skills I have gained, etc etc are apparent (I feel) and will set me apart from other candidates in the various competitive sectors I hope to enter.
Sarah , Nottingham

Our institutions are not all corrupt and nor are our overseas students all dunces with minimum skills in English language.As exams officer for my School for the last 8 years I have been well placed to monitor the whole assessment process. I teach and assess both undergraduate and postgraduate students, both home and overseas. There are occasional students in any cohort (home and/or overseas) who may not come up to the mark. But the majority of overseas students do meet the course requirements and handle both the level of study and the language very well. If a student does seem to be disadvantaged by their language skill we refer them to our Centre for English Language Education for additional support.

The academic offence of plagiarism has undeniably increased with facility of 'cutting and pasting' technology. However, anti-plagiarism packages are also increasingly being used to identify bad practice. It is not ignored or nodded through. Students guilty of the offence receive zero for their work on a first offence. They could, and have, had their course terminated for offences thereafter.
Dr Sue Pryce, nottingham

I lecture on a postgraduate professional legal course which requires high levels of English skills oral and written as it allows entry into the legal profession. Many students pass who do not have the language ability to work in this country. I have worked with some who have passed these courses and yet judges are throwing back their documents in disgust asking for them to be re-drafted. They are able to do many of the written assessments at home and it is often suspected that they have the work done by someone else - even going as far as instructing a barrister to do it for them. The larger the institution the greater the pressure to ensure the failure rate does not deter applicants. Sadly as this is happening, the professional governing body is lowering standards in the name of access. They are diminishing the effectiveness of the external examiners. One senior manager stated that as far as the profession was concerned we write and mark our own examinations and this is suspect in potential employers' eyes. So it was pointless trying to use the external examiners as gatekeepers to the profession and we should acquiesce in the diminution of their role.
Davis, London

I too work at a 'top-10' British university and recognise and corroborate most of what the whistle blower reports. The worst aspect of the situation from my perspective is that I believe it is already common knowledge in parts of the developing world that the surest way to succeed in a British university (I would exclude Oxbridge but definitely include notable 'top ten' establishments) is to lie and cheat to gain a place. ... Not one student, ever, has been refused their place when demonstrated to have lied about their language skills and to have failed to reach an adequate standard.

In a pastoral role I have had to deal with students (both home and talented overseas students) who despair at the remedial level their classes are run at in order to ensure that the liars who gained places dishonestly can complete their course. I even know of one example of a rare overseas applicant who was refused a place on a post graduate course because of their poor academic record. Obviously knowing the system, the rejected individual simply turned up to start the course and paid over the fees. The department concerned obviously rejected her entry but were over-ruled and forced to take the student. In due course (and only because the particular examining process depended on satisfying an external examiner) the candidate failed. After kicking up a fuss the student was allowed to be re-examined and some fudge was done to protect the excellent record of this fine top ten establishment.

This situation is fuelled by fees from overseas students and the need for universities to be 'customer' friendly and look good in the league tables. The problem is entirely caused by the devolution of power from academics to administrators and will only be reversed when there is a wholesale rout of the 'business' model of higher education and universities return to being assemblies of scholars rather than committees of 'success'-driven control freaks (who were probably educated themselves by a system that rewards cheats). Please don't publicise my name, the long held freedoms that made academia a worthwhile place are long dead and speaking out is not acceptable.
Concerned, West Midlands

I attend a Russell Group University also as an undergraduate and wish to highlight perhaps a bigger concern. With our course a large element of the 2nd year is a project which is undertaken in a group. We are placed into groups of 6 and then given a year to complete the project. Due to the language problems, both spoken and written, and the general poor skills of education a firm and overwhelming emphasis is placed on the 2 or 3 British students to do the majority of the work. Complaints to tutors about this extra burden are dismissed and this leads to the English students simply having to do the work of the others as they cant communicate enough with the foreign students to get them to understand and for reports their rudimentary English makes it impossible to submit the work.

This in turn allows for less time for other modules and adversely affects these grades. It makes a mockery of being accepted to a UK top 10 and Global top 40 university only to have to support these cash cows. The lectures turn a blind eye and always seem to ensure their marks are consistent with a 2:1.
Jon, Nottingham

The only thing that surprises me about this is how long it's taken to come out into the open. Ten years ago I attended a presentation at a London university on the push toward attracting foreign students as a major source of income. It was clear then from the tone of the event that it was business first, with any academic or practical consideration taking a back seat to the ring of the cash register. The greatly enlarged marketing department had been moved into expensively refurbished office space, displacing academic staff who were moved in with protesting colleagues.

Universities can only play for so long on the "family silver" of historical academic excellence before their reputations are severely and perhaps irreparably damaged.
Mark, London

I recently completed my MSc (as a mature student of 29 years old) and was amazed and somewhat disgusted with the level of education and language skills shown by many of the foreign students. This was so pronounced that I have essentially felt that my degree is of very little value, as the majority of my results have been very high against a backdrop of foreign students that have managed to pass with what I would suggest was work that was well below what one would assume as a benchmark 'pass-grade'. It also disrupts the class as many of the students struggled with the language used ... both standard English AND particularly with technical concepts (it was an IT related degree).

The other issue that was flabbergasting was the fact that so many of these students were only there to work in the UK. Time and time again registers were taken at the beginning of a lesson with at least half of the students missing or never turning up ... only to submit a piece of work at the end of term which somehow obtained a pass mark?! I feel strongly about this issue, as it severely dented my sense of achievement upon the completion of the degree and damages the reputation of all UK Universities.
Ian, Bristol, UK

I recently completed a MSc course in a "reputed" university and was rather taken back to see the quality of students allowed to pursue Master's courses. Most of them lack basic educational and language skills to pursue such programmes and it appears that the financial aspects were the main driving factor in their application. Most don't even bother attending classes - busy cleaning and serving meals in fast food joints and there was no effort on the part of the university authorities to enforce any discipline regarding attendance and failing marks. What was further sickening was that degrees / diplomas were awarded despite their failing across a broad number of exams. Sorry to say I personally will not recommend UK Higher education to anyone anymore.
Kaushik, Glasgow, UK

Interesting that everyone leaps to make the accusation stick. Why not come and spend a few days with the people and students who work together on the MA course I run?

1) yes, some speak and write English less well than others. But when we have to make decisions about admission, we have to start with an IELTS certificate. I also ask for a personal statement from the student which explains their reasons for coming on the degree: mainly I use this as a check on their writing. Now I accept either one of these could possibly be faked or bought. But how "rigorous" can one get past this point? In the past I have sometimes done face-to-face interviews with people I suspected of having weaker English but this is only possible when they are already in the country. So a certain level of checking is possible but in the end if a student wants to get into the university at whatever cost, then they will bypass these, and there is not a huge amount we can do about it.

2) Always in these kinds of discussion there is the implication that universities have abandoned all principles for a rush for profit. Actually universities need this income these days simply to stay afloat, having been abandoned by the state. ...

3) Teaching international students is one of the most rewarding parts of my job. There was one Arab guy this year, from a village out in the desert, who struggled manfully at the beginning but he's really done it, his work is now of a good standard, and I feel fully justified in admitting him to the course, and proud of what we have helped him achieve. How quick everyone above has been to leap on the bandwagon and not see the potential positives of an international student cohort enriching our academic environments. Sure, some universities treat them as cash cows and abandon them. I certainly do not and I challenge anyone to come and talk to the students on my course and say that they or my university are somehow being exploited.
Drew, Yorkshire

I work in a university admissions office and we have complained about this for years. We impose university agreed English language requirements on all applicants. Unfortunately the lecturers ignore our specialised knowledge and over-rule us as they are desperate to ensure their classes are full. We point out that students will fail (if they even enrol!) but the academics main interest is numbers on the books to justify the class running. Applicants from overseas will contact lecturers from their own countries and beg them to waive the English requirements. The academics will often do so, citing "I've spoken to them on the phone and their English is fine". Putting aside the questionable quality of the academic's own English, it is impossible to ensure they have even spoken to the applicant and not a friend with better English. Fortunately, the Points Based System next year should cut down on this as students will be denied visas if they cannot speak English and the institution will be penalised. This should ensure standards are put above profits (at least in the area of language ability), although some institutions are bound to put immediate profit over long term recruitment.
Bob, Devon

As a current Masters student, I am the only home student and whilst a couple of the foreign students do the work, I have found that in Seminars I am generally the only one who has done the reading/background work, and am the only one that contributes, therefore I lose out on the important areas of discussion. I have financed the MA myself, juggling family and part time work and feel that I have lost out as a consequence. Whilst my undergraduate experience was in the main good I cannot say the same for my postgraduate experience. There was also an expectation from the other students that I would spend my time helping them out, explaining lectures to them, helping with assignments and I was even asked to check one students essay before it was handed in. In the end I worked entirely from home, did not socialise with the other students only arriving in time for the lectures and leaving straight afterwards, as there are only so many times you can point others in the direction of the lecturers who should be providing that level of support before giving offence. I feel that my own studies are devalued if students pass, despite failing to grasp basic concepts, and failing to attend the required percentage of taught sessions.
Anon, London

As a teacher in a leading university I can also confirm these problems. At undergraduate level we can do a lot: from insisting take a pre-admission language course in the UK to making them repeat year 1 (which of course brings in more fees). But with post-graduates it is another matter. We insist that any non-English speaker applying for an MA must submit a "sample essay" as well as language test results. These we test for internet plagiarism and have the luxury of sufficient applications to be able to reject those who have. For PhD students the situation is worse. After spending days rewriting a Korean students dissertation (good content, lousy expression), I now ask that they find and pay someone to put their work into decent English. At the PhD level their work is bound to be their own: their project is on a highly specialised subject and is mostly their choice. In the end, though, would any of us want to try taking a degree course taught in Chinese? I admire those students who make a genuine effort to become academically bilingual, and think we should do a lot more to support them if we are taking such large amounts of money off them. Fat chance of that happening however, as the system needs the profits they bring in. Their fees keep the whole system going financially. The UK university system would be bankrupt tomorrow without the profits it makes from overseas students.
John, London

Please don't blame this on those who try to their best to run our universities despite decades of ever-decreasing incomes. Funding per student is cut, research funding is cut, salaries are falling ever further behind the rest of the world, and behind other UK professions. Even Oxford and Cambridge are losing money hand over fist and believe me it's not because their staff are paid well. The universities are not being 'greedy' as many seem to assume. They are stuck with no other way of paying the bills and are taken on large numbers of below-standard students just to try and stay afloat.
Jenny, Cambridge

I have first hand experience of graduates of UK Universities who are Middle Eastern nationals and whose English language written skills are at primary school level and whose general education is well short of GSE standard. These graduates not only received Masters degrees but one actually received a Ph.D. when he could not write correctly a simple sentence (i.e. a sentence with one subject, one verb and one object). I wrote to [an English university] about one such individual to check on his credentials and was told in effect that he was a very nice chap and did have a Masters in Law. One UK graduate in the Middle East told me that it was easy to get a Masters in the UK. All you had to do was to go to Cairo University and choose somebody else's thesis, pay a small fee to get it translated into English and use that for the basis of your Masters. The rest was simply flanneling your tutor. I was told that, as a UK University had no way of checking for plagiarism of theses in Arabic, there was no danger of being found out. This was all explained to me in alarming openness and simplicity. The prostitution of UK Universities' standards will result in a reputation similar to that of, well, prostitutes.
Jimmie, Edinburgh

There's another side to this story: I'm an international student doing an MA degree in London. My work has been repeatedly marked down because my tutors believed I had plagiarised. They simply said "you wouldn't believe how many students do that, and your work was too good to have come out of a Chinese student". So, not only am I expected to produce work of dubious quality in order to fit that stereotype, I now have to actually justify writing excellent essays.

In China, British (and generally overseas) degrees are already experiencing a decline in popularity. And it is a great shame to see genuinely outstanding institutions go down the quick profit road while causing irreparable damage to their reputation.
Lu Yang, London

I have witnessed the extra allowances and benefit the foreign students receive. The current practice for submission of assignments and dissertations is that a colleague abroad sends them a copy of similar project in foreign language and they then get it translated. This circumvents the current plagiarism checks. They are also downloading foreign language content from internet and again translating for submission. Does this not de-value the MSc that I have taken 3 (part time) years to complete?Does this not de-value the accedemic qualification that I have spent 3 year of hard study to achieve. I also had a number of "team" elements to the course and it was hampered by foriegn students not producing the goods.
Steve, S Wales

I am so glad someone has eventually spoken out on this issue as it has been going on at the institution where I am just finishing my PhD for 2 years now. As a life sciences PhD student I am expected to help with supervision of the overseas masters students in the laboratory so I have firsthand experience of not only their level of English, but their ability in the laboratory as well. I greatly admire someone who chooses to study in a country where they must speak a foreign language, but in my experience language is not the only barrier here. Every one of the overseas masters students last year failed their maths exam, but surprisingly only one failed their masters degree - to be given a post-graduate diploma in lui. The students sit modules alongside 3rd year honours students and are even given extra time for the same exam! It is clear that money is now more important to universities than education.
Anon, Glasgow

I agree, I teach a Masters course at a red brick university and find that I spend most of my time teaching basic skills and learning strategies, which is a waste of my time and skills. Its highly frustrating for me as a tutor and for the students who need translation dictionaries all the time. I expect that students enrolling for Univ should have a working knowledge of English. I am from overseas myself - and English is not my first language, however a HUGE effort is required on part of the student to master the language and then join the course. The IELTS is a dumb way to test English levels as it asks basic questions, I have taught people who have passed it, yet could not say more than Yes or No in class.
Anon, London

Your article and the responses are absolutely spot on. The postgraduate degree sham has been an open secret in the university world for years. It is to all intents and purposes impossible for a full fee paying student to fail a course, no matter how low their ability, how poor their English or how dishonest their practice.

This is a natural result of the new business like nature of universities. We don't teach or educate any more - we sell degrees, and the customer is always (even if they can't spell it) right.
Ian Johnston, Glasgow, Scotland

Having worked in a Russell Group university for 20 years, my own experience resonates with that of many of you, though the fraction of students I have had direct contact with (in a physical sciences environment) with poor language skills is much lower than 5%. What is missing from the debate is any discussion of "why" universities feel obliged to secure large numbers of foreign students: the reason is clear - we have historically chosen to refuse to fund the university sector appropriately, and so universities have no choice but to seek funds through other routes. If government funding for teaching UK students was even barely adequate, we would likely not see this type of situation.
Chris, England

I am an international student myself and I can assure that this problem does exist, in an extremely large scale. When I applied for my MA programme some four years ago in a reportedly reputable English university, I was asked by the department to get at least 7.0 in IELTS or equivalant, which, I assume, requires every student to have a certain level in both spoken and written English. However, I was shocked when I first met my classmates as many could barely speak one correct sentence, not to mention incorrect pronunciation of almost every word, making having a normal conversation virtually impossible, and was appaled to discover that some even joined without any sort of a proficiency test. What amazes me even more is that everyone I knew back there had passed.
Grami, Newcastle

I work in a multinational, science-based industry and have done so for nearly 20 years. I have interviewed numerous graduates and postgraduates and have witnessed a shocking decline in the average standard of people coming out of UK universities over the past decade or so. I am not alone in thinking this as most of my colleagues, as well as many people I meet at conferences, share the same concern. UK universities are forced to operate as businesses rather than academic institutions and so it is hardly surprising that we see the consequences so eloquently highlighted by the correspondents on this web site. So, where do I get my new staff from ? Well, increasingly, I am recruiting from overseas (mainly other EU countries) where universities are still focused on education and aren't afraid to use the "F" word - Fail.
Mel, London

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