Million-dollar payout to international students

Updated

Former students from Auckland’s Excellence Education Academy have had their fees refunded after NZQA shut down the school. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

With the quality of New Zealand’s international education sector under the spotlight, the department charged with keeping tabs on the sector says it is only undertaking a quarter of the monitoring it should be. Shane Cowlishaw reports.

A group of international students has been refunded almost $1 million in fees after the school they were studying at was ordered to shut.

It comes amidst a ministerial plea from the department tasked with monitoring education institutions that it is only able to investigate one percent of the industry with current funding.

The New Zealand Qualification Authority ordered the closure of the Excellent Education Academy in January after finding testing and assessment failures within its business diplomas.

A monitoring report found only six of 71 assessment samples were adequate, along with a failure to check whether students could speak adequate English before enrolling.

The closure left close to 200 students in limbo while the school’s owner hit out at the authority, accusing it of “Gestapo” tactics.

A briefing for Education Minister Chris Hipkins earlier this year estimated the cost to fully refund the business students’ fees to be $570,000.

But the Ministry of Education confirmed to Newsroom that the cost had ballooned to $828,000, with the potential for the final amount to climb even further.

Claire Douglas, a ministry deputy secretary, said once the academy was closed it was realised an additional group of students were eligible for a refund.

That had increased the amount paid out, but 20 students from that group had yet to have their refunds considered and the figure could increase further, she said. A total of 176 students have applied for a refund.

There has been a flurry of investigations and enforced closures of non-university tertiary institutions in the past few years amid claims of sub-standard qualifications designed as a pathway to residence for overseas students.

Most recently a group of Chinese students spoke out about their perceived ill-treatment after the closure of the New Zealand National College, sparking fears of reputational risk to the sector.

Student fees are required to be placed in a student trust account by an institution.

As an extra safeguard, students can be refunded through the Export Education Levy administered by the ministry.

The amount paid out through this fund has risen dramatically.

During the 2014/15 and 2015/16 financial years only $45,000 was required, but in 2016/17 that rose to $908,000 after three institutions were closed.

Funding plea

The closure of Excellent Education comes in a period of heightened enforcement action for the authority, but it believes it is not doing enough.

In a separate briefing to Hipkins, the authority said it had increased its monitoring activity to address concerns about assessment quality, teaching capability and resourcing.

At any one time, it had between 40 to 50 investigations underway of varying seriousness while it had taken action against 25 organisations in the past year.

Despite this, it estimated it would need to quadruple the amount of monitoring it was doing and needed more money to do so.

“To be able to undertake the scale of monitoring and related follow-up that is required to assure confidence in educational outcomes across the non-university sector, additional resources are required.

“NZQA estimates that it needs to monitor four per cent (currently one percent are monitored) of the nearly 10,000 NZQA approved programmes and training schemes annually to drive the required improvements throughout the sector.”

Grant Klinkum, a deputy chief executive at the authority, did not answer questions from Newsroom about funding, but said there would be no back-down from the increased monitoring.

“What you will see is NZQA continuing to take steps against providers who don’t perform. NZQA won’t tolerate poor performance, as it harms what is by and large a very high performing tertiary education system.”

The lobby group representing private training establishments, however, is concerned the reputation of good schools could be damaged.

Craig Musson, chair of the Independent Tertiary Education, accepted there were a small number of businesses not following the rules or that were focused on “getting people through with visas”.

While they supported the authority he believed there were already adequate safeguards.

“We certainly don’t want a blanket approach taken when most of us are doing things very well and have been for a number of years.

“We would like to see evidence that there are more providers that are doing wrong … are they making assumptions, because assumptions can be different to reality.”

Hipkins said he expected the authority to take the appropriate steps necessary to ensure a high-quality tertiary education system, but said it was inappropriate to comment on future funding plans with the Budget looming.