One of New Zealand's biggest schools for international students has repeatedly failed to meet minimum educational standards and there are doubts over whether many of its qualifications are genuine, according to two damning reports by the New Zealand Qualifications Authority.
The reports show NZQA has taken the unusual step of placing four statutory conditions on Cornell Institute of Business and Technology, because of concerns about the legitimacy of its cookery programme and serious doubts over its assessment practices in both cookery and business qualifications.
However Cornell director Richard Thornton told the Herald yesterday that because the school had made a large number of changes since the NZQA reports, "Cornell is able to vouch for the authenticity of all its qualifications".
The reports on the school, which has about 1500 fee-paying international students and four campuses in Auckland and Tauranga, say:
• All 18 samples of business students' work passed by Cornell and submitted for external checking were failed by independent moderators.
• Evidence of some cookery student passes was "not authentic", including identical feedback forms to three different students and students passing before their final assessment.
• The school has been using "vast amounts" of cross credits from its own unapproved programmes to pass hundreds of cookery students.
• Cookery students passed by Cornell did not show the required skills, including the ability to fry or boil an egg.
As a result of the two reports, NZQA says it is not yet confident in Cornell's educational performance or assessment procedures - the second-lowest of four possible rankings.
Last year an NZQA monitoring report found Cornell was not using NZQA-approved unit standards for most of the first year of a two-year course, the Diploma in International Culinary Arts (Level 5).
Instead the school was "cross-crediting" results from its own programmes, which did not match the course, were being taught too quickly for the learning required and did not match the programme originally approved by NZQA.
"The staff at (Cornell) confirmed that Immigration New Zealand has also had queries with regards to the vast amounts of cross credits within this programme."
Independent checking of students' work by the industry training organisation ServiceIQ found it did not show students could make complex soups such as Tom Yum or Boulibasse or cook a full range of egg dishes, including fried or boiled eggs.
It said the evidence given for students' ability to provide restaurant food and beverage service was not authentic, as the same order dockets and completed feedback forms were used for each student.
"Dates of the verifications (that they had passed) were before the final assessments and sometimes on the same day."
ServiceIQ also raised doubts about the commercial realism of the course.
An External Evaluation and Review report by NZQA published last month says Cornell failed to meet national marking standards, known as moderation, for all 18 standards checked in a business and management systems course, despite being put on notice to improve since 2012.
"Cornell has high course completion rates, but breaches of assessment and moderation requirements that have led to conditions being placed on Cornell's registration raise significant questions about the validity of these achievement rates in some programmes."
Because of these doubts, it says "employers cannot be sure that graduates have actually achieved all the required knowledge and skills".
The report says Cornell has expanded rapidly from 400 students in 2012 to 1500. Staff have increased by 50 per cent and the school now has four branches, including a Tauranga campus which opened in 2015. It has plans to open a new purpose-built centre in Christchurch.
However in the first eight months of last year "an unacceptably high" 77 per cent of student visa applications from India to study at Cornell were declined. NZQA and Immigration New Zealand have warned the school this is a potential breach of its right to take international students.
Reviewers identified other problems. Staff turnover in the health diploma programme was so high that all staff members were in their first three months at the time of the review. One student was enrolled despite scoring below the minimum mark in an English reading test.
The report warns; "The evaluators consider that over the period since the previous EER, Cornell has not placed sufficient attention and importance on education matters.
"The managing director told the evaluators of his plans for enrolling a further 1,000 students. The evaluation team considers that there are sufficient risks identified prior to and during this evaluation to suggest the need for a stronger focus on the quality of education processes and practices rather than growth at this stage."
The report says Cornell failed to meet the statutory condition on minimum standards for its business marking, so it has been required to have an "assessment partner" to check students' work in the National Diploma of Business Level 5 and 6. The school will not deliver the course in future.
Cornell director Richard Thornton said using cross credits in the cookery course was not designed to avoid NZQA moderation.
"Cornell... has never attempted to avoid academic scrutiny of the assessment that it delivers."
He said the school had made many changes since the EER visit including additional senior staff in key areas, improved governance and communication, professional development for staff and new quality assurance systems.
It had received successful IT, business and healthcare monitoring reports and introduced improved facilities, such as additional kitchens and student work areas.
Cornell was also the 2014 and 2016 national winner of the NZ Chef's Association Award for Best Culinary Training School.
'They don't understand the course'
Former staff at Cornell Institute of Business and Technology spoke out in the Herald six years ago, claiming the school was passing international students who could barely speak English.
Yet the following year the school received a glowing report from NZQA, which made no reference to the serious allegations, now supported by an industry training organisation's findings.
Former operations manager Nicky Van der Bergh and former cookery tutors Stephen Clark and Michael Wilson told the Herald in 2011 that Cornell routinely accepted students who could not understand the courses they were supposed to be doing.
"I've had quite a few crying their eyes out because it was so hard for them because they don't understand the course," said Wilson.
"You've got students coming out of these courses with qualifications who don't even know the basics of how to make a hollandaise or a basic sauce."
Enrolment papers also showed the school accepted a 19-year-old Chinese student with very limited English into a degree-level course, which his previous school said he was "not even close" to understanding.
Cornell owner Andrew Do said at the time that the allegations against the school were false and came from disaffected former staff members and competitors.
Last month a new External Evaluation and Review report by NZQA (see main story) downgraded the school's rating and warned that the validity of its qualifications were in doubt.
Specialist reviewers found students could not show they could make complex soups or a variety of egg dishes and a student was enrolled, even though his English wasn't good enough - the same concerns that prompted staff to speak out in 2011.
Asked why its 2012 report did not pursue the claims made in the Herald story, NZQA replied: "NZQA can confirm this concern was investigated and whilst not referred to in the EER, the investigation result informed the EER in 2012".