BY: Andrew Laxon
An investigation into “unacceptable practices” at an education provider run by the Manukau Institute of Technology stopped short of following up on allegations that tutors filled in their students’ assignments.
The Tertiary Education Commission investigation ordered MIT to repay $125,518 in government subsidies and recommended it should notify the police about alterations made to student assessments at its former subsidiary EnterpriseMIT.
But the investigation did not make any inquiries into allegations raised in the Herald by two students and a former tutor that some EnterpriseMIT tutors had completed their students’ assessments for them.
Chief executive Tim Fowler said TEC had heard reports of alleged cheating even before the investigation began but decided not to follow up on the claims because EnterpriseMIT had already been shut down and MIT had taken steps to address the issues raised in the report.
MIT board chairman Peter Winder said MIT had no record of a formal complaint from the students. However, he said it had already closed down the company last December because of the “completely unacceptable” practices raised by both the TEC inquiry and its own investigations.
The inquiry, carried out for the commission by Deloitte and published last month, examined three courses run by EnterpriseMIT; National Certificate in Maritime (Commercial Inshore Vessel Operations), National Certificate in Employment Skills, branded as KeyStep, and Certificate in Finfish Culture, which was mostly taken by pet store employees.
The inquiry found that most students on the finfish course between 2013 and 2016 already knew about 40 per cent of the course content but no checks were made to assess their prior learning.
As a result, MIT was required to repay $125,518 of government funding to the commission.
The inquiry also found several irregularities in documentation, which it said could indicate forgery or false documentation. It recommended MIT refer these cases to the police.
“A number of signatures on assessments and other documentation were found to be altered. Correction fluid/tape was used to alter some signatures, names and dates. Individual students advised they did not recognise signatures purporting to be their own.”
Some students’ enrolments were dated months later than the official start date of their course, and some courses featured fewer teaching hours than was required, the inquiry said.
Four students told the inquiry they had not successfully completed their courses, even though EnterpriseMIT had recorded them as successful completions.
Twelve students enrolled in the finfish and employment courses had no record of attempting any assessments and it appeared that some had not attended more than the first 10 percent of the course, which was the cut-off for claiming government subsidies, the report said.
The report said it was possible that the finfish course had used oral instead of written exams to pass some students who were at risk of failing.
MIT said it had referred the altered documentation issue to police and understood they would take no further action.
In the report, MIT board chairman Peter Winder told the commission the irregularities in the documents were an administrative error, not an attempt to manipulate the system.
“As far as we can tell all the enrolments relate to legitimate students,” he wrote in a letter to the TEC in August last year.
Winder said overall EnterpriseMIT had received less funding than it was entitled to. Yet both the Deloittes invesigators and the TEC seemed to be working on an incorrect presumption that they were looking at “significant fraud for either personal or institutional gain”.
The inquiry did not address claims made to the Deloittes auditors and reported in the Herald in July that some tutors completed students’ assignments for them.
A former staff member told the Herald he alerted the auditors to a complaint from two KeyStep students, who reported seeing a tutor filling in student assessments about September 2015, using different handwriting to make it look as if the students had done the work.
One of the students, Hana Faleatua, later told the Herald that she and her boyfriend, Bryant Parata, were sitting by the tutor as she wrote the answers.
The tutor asked her if she thought the handwriting looked different, before handing the booklets to a more senior tutor, who approved of her actions.
Parata said he also remembered the tutor filling in the booklets and asking him and Faleatua if the handwriting looked the same or not.
The Herald understands that about the time of the alleged incident EnterpriseMIT had gained taxpayer funding for about 140 students but had fewer than 50 turning up to classes.
Other staff claimed it was common for tutors to visit students in their homes close to deadline and effectively write their answers for them.
Former tutor Edwina Kapa said she forwarded a letter to former EnterpriseMIT chief executive Tim Wilson from a student complaining about a tutor who visited her at home.
The student wrote: “She pulled out seven assessments for me to complete. She made me sign them all first and then we got down to the questions, she read the questions out to me and before I could speak she would already be writing her own ideas down while asking me if I agree.”
Kapa also formally complained about recruiters offering students $50 for every friend or family member they signed up for the course.
She reported a recruiter offering cigarettes to 15-year-old students and taking the class on a trip to Rainbow’s End, which one student’s mother described as “buying compliance”.
Wilson replied in a letter to Kapa that a senior staff member had approved the home-based assessments.
Recruiters had denied offering money or cigarettes to students and the Rainbow’s End trip was reasonable, because the organiser was trying to make up for the lack of off-site activities during the programme.
Faleatua told the Herald in July that no one from MIT or TEC had contacted her about her allegations. Faleatua could not be contacted this week but Parata confirmed neither had been asked about their claims.
Kapa said she was interviewed by the Deloittes investigators. However her claims are not mentioned in the report.
Fowler said TEC was aware of cheating rumours at EnterpriseMIT before starting the investigation but decided on balance not to take any further action after the Heraldreported the allegations.
“Before we commissioned Deloitte to start a full investigation, we were aware of unconfirmed reports of cheating. During the investigation, a number of students were spoken with formally but none raised issues of cheating, despite direct questions being asked about assessments and tutors.
“Following this, we were made aware of further reports of alleged cheating. The investigation component had by then been concluded, although the report was still being finalised. As there was a lack of strong new evidence, we had to weigh up the merits of reopening the investigation.
“Our decision was that we would not. This was based on the fact that EnterpriseMIT was by then defunct, and MIT had taken steps to address a range of administrative processes they were aware of.”
MIT board chairman Peter Winder said MIT investigated every formal complaint it received.
“To the best of our knowledge we’ve never received a formal complaint from (Faleatua and Parata). They may have complained to a tutor who is no longer with us but there is no formal record of that.”
He said by the time the Herald reported their allegations in July EnterpriseMIT was already being wound up and the staff involved were no longer employed by MIT.
“In relation to both the TEC inquiry and this complaint, we endeavoured to speak to a range of former staff and we found it very difficult to construct from their memories any meaningful understanding of what happened.
“We have done our best to deal with a situation that is completely unacceptable. We ultimately decided to close down Enterprise MIT … that is how seriously we took the issues that were raised through the TEC inquiry and our investigations.”
The report also says that, separate from the investigation, EnterpriseMIT had to repay $1,036,990 in taxpayer funding in 2014 for failing to deliver as many students as it had promised. The shortfall was $614,172 under the Youth Guarantee plan and $422,817 in Workplace Literary Funding.
Fowler said it was normal practice for tertiary organisations to repay money for courses if they had under-delivered on the agreed number of students.
Source: NZ Herald