Since the Herald began publishing its three-part investigation into the student visa scandal, the emails have flooded in.
Most have come from people in or close to the industry. Virtually all say the same thing - you are absolutely right, this is the tip of the iceberg, here is what happened in the place where I worked. Then most add - but please don't publish my name, because I still need a job.
The reluctance to speak out publicly is understandable but is also a crucial part of the problem. It seems clear from anecdotal evidence, as well as the number of investigations under way - 58 at last count - that cheating and fraud is widespread among education providers in the international student market. It's impossible to put a number on it because any dishonesty is carefully hidden. But it seems this is not about a few "bad apples". Any cheating occurs because of the way the system is set up.
International education in New Zealand is designed to bring in as many students as possible, concentrating on revenue rather than high-level qualifications. It offers students a pathway to immigration through part-time work as they study and post-study work visas. And it has targeted India, where millions of people seek to escape a lifetime of poverty and corruption and some are prepared to cut corners for a better life in New Zealand. Not surprisingly, the system appears wide open to abuse. Rotorua-based Toi Ohomai Institute of Technology interim chief executive Neil Barns' description this week was: "Some of these providers are not involved in quality education. It's a front to get students through into fairly much indentured labour in New Zealand."
The flow-on effects are widespread. Immigration NZ is investigating 55 possible cases of "cash-for-job" scams, where migrants pay employers for a job to get a visa, and officials have warned ministers that a huge increase in former international students working as a "chef" (read kitchenhand) or a "retail manager" (read shop assistant) is doing nothing for our high-skills economy and may be pushing New Zealanders out of low-paid jobs.
The Government is in an awkward position because it has belatedly clamped down on the worst abuses but seems reluctant to admit it, possibly for fear of losing the whole Indian student market. Tougher English tests should weed out many unsuitable former students aiming to qualify as skilled migrants and a decision to raise the points threshold will wipe out many bogus chefs and restaurant managers. A long overdue review of the points system looks likely to put much more emphasis on salary levels and work experience, rather than job offers.
There are also signs that NZQA and Immigration, after years of inactivity, are tackling the problem with more urgency. This week's NZQA report, which found "systemic plagiarism" among 1000 mainly Indian students at Linguis International, relied on investigators spot checking samples of students' work, rather than relying on what the school owner told them. It's a welcome improvement, even if it should have happened long ago.
Yet it seems no one can really tackle the student visa rort because we now depend on it.
The country makes $4.28 billion a year from international students, our fourth biggest industry behind dairy, tourism and meat. Put aside legitimate questions over how much of that money stays in New Zealand and circulates in the wider economy, as opposed to the immigrants themselves. If we turned off the tap tomorrow - the Government's nightmare scenario after the sudden collapse of the Chinese market in 2003 - many office buildings would be half empty and central Queen St would become a ghost town. Even reputable education providers would go broke and most polytechnics and universities could not make ends meet with domestic students alone. Economic activity would also take a hit, as international students are doing the difficult, low-paid jobs that most New Zealanders avoid - at least until the students get their residence visa.
In short, fundamental changes are unlikely to come from the top because too many powerful interests are benefiting from the current system, despite its obvious flaws. The only hope is for more honest people within the student visa scam to stand up and be counted.
Students with fake test results
I have worked at three tertiary institutes. At one of them students with fake English test results are only being caught when they reach the classroom, because the company doesn't care. Some of these students have stolen others' student ID numbers and NZQA numbers from other polytechnics in NZ. But because students have paid, then the tutors are bullied for raising the issue. Students who go out on internship suddenly "disappear" and ethical staff who raise this issue or threaten to go to Immigration are fired or bullied until they have breakdowns. The company is obsessed with making money at all costs.
And now they are filling the staff with corruptible non-English speaking staff to teach ... The Government needs to take a serious look at what the purpose is of this international student education ... Because there are so many people who are being passed on courses they never intend to do solely for a visa, so that they and their families can come into New Zealand and live off what the NZ taxpayer has already established.
False hopes, used as cash cow
I had an Indian learner who had originally come to the institution to do the diploma in business. However, his English was so low that he was moved to the ESL section in the hope that his English would improve. Despite our best efforts, he stayed in that class for more than six months without improving. He became very depressed and told me that his family had mortgaged their farm in order to pay for him to come here. He twice asked me to marry him (or find him friends who would) so he could get a visa in order to bring his family here. All the teachers were aware of his struggles, but the institution kept him because he was a cash cow and continued to give him false hope that he would eventually be able to do the diploma. The kid was working through the night to support himself, and would fall asleep in class.
Give them the answers
I taught at a polytech over a number of years where the shift of students in my classes went from mainly Kiwi kids to almost 100 per cent Indian. On one occasion when I informed my supervisor that more than 50 per cent of the class had failed an exam, she said: "You can't do that, we'll be out of a job." So what happens is that students get resits, then sometimes even a third go. Other ways promoted to get students to pass is to teach the test; give them the same test again (the one they failed) after drilling them on the test; or just give them the questions they failed again rather than the whole test, after spoon-feeding them the answers.
Chefs are as cheap as chips
I have just left hospitality after 18 years as a chef. The student visa system has ruined the industry, and it will take a long time to recover. Skilled chefs are being driven out of the industry, or driven offshore as the availability of unskilled (yet supposedly qualified) chefs willing to work 20 hours for minimum wage is at a saturation point.
I've had a chef from [tertiary institution] who could only poach eggs in a microwave. He held level 5 cookery. When queried, it turned out he had essentially paid to pass. $15k was seen as cheap, as it meant he could be working instead of going to class.
Science hit by low wages
Over the years I have seen first-hand the damage this student visa policy has done to the science sector. Wages have remained static in our sector and fallen across the board. New graduates are studying science in droves, but cannot compete with the volume of student visa applicants, all of whom are studying "food science" and "microbiology". Looking at the CVs, most have no grasp of written English and are willing to work for minimum wage. I receive around 100 of these junk CVs per advertised role.
Employer lies to Immigration
I know of an employer in my town that lied to Immigration NZ about a guy who worked in her kitchen being the baker. This employer is currently lying to Immigration NZ about a waiter that has become a manager despite the fact that a couple of years ago another barista/waiter became the "manager" and now has residency. There is actually a real manager and the owner working in the business. The latest fiasco makes this the fifth time this employer has lied to Immigration.