South-east Asian universities should be externally audited

When observance of university rules is subservient to internal political considerations, standards and fairness suffer, says Afroz Shah

十月 11, 2021
False data illustrating need for oversight in South-east Asian universities
Source: iStock

At a university in South-east Asia, I was once asked to mark an undergraduate dissertation that was obviously plagiarised.

My conviction that the writing was much too polished to have been the work of the student in question was confirmed by a Google search, which revealed the article they had copied from.

I was stunned. I immediately informed the head of department, who was also the second reviewer of the dissertation. He had marked it as excellent, but my revelation changed his mind and he established a departmental committee to investigate.

Before the meeting began, the head interviewed the student so that his side of the story was properly taken into account. The student admitted that most of the dissertation was not his own work; he had merely altered a small part of an article given to him by his supervisor, who we’ll call Dr X. After also hearing from Dr X and the examiners, the committee decided that the student had merely followed the instructions of Dr X, who was one of the authors of the plagiarised paper. The student was allowed to resubmit after making corrections, and this time he passed.

Such an obvious case of plagiarism should not have been swept under the carpet. Both the student and the supervisor should have been held accountable. Unfortunately, in my experience, such occurrences are all too common in South-east Asia. Observance of university rules is subservient to internal political considerations, such as avoiding conflicts with colleagues and saving students from disgrace.

During the departmental committee, for instance, I confronted Dr X when he tried to defend his unethical behaviour, but this changed nothing except to create a destructive internal rivalry. This was brought home to me when two of my MSc students were subsequently examined by Dr X. He unfairly awarded mere pass marks to their dissertations. His reports amounted to less than a page of comments and suggestions each, based on the dissertations’ abstracts and a few pages of the introductions; he evidently hadn’t read any further. Even more shockingly, the reports contained the same text. This kind of plagiarism was new to me!

By contrast, the external examiners submitted five pages of detailed comments justifying the “excellent” grades they awarded. Yet the university’s examination committee confirmed the pass mark – and my students will suffer a lifetime of losses as a result.

I am also aware of a lecturer who would pass most of their students with good grades regardless of merit. This came to light when one student failed or received very low grades in all courses except for the one that was taught by this lecturer. Such behaviour should be easy to spot during examination board meetings and an inquiry could have easily solved the problem. But there was no inquiry.

There are always going to be people who use unfair means to shirk their responsibilities and to climb the career ladder without working for it – and they are enabled and emboldened by others around them who do the same and collude to influence decisions, such as where to send a dissertation for examination or who to appoint to a promotion committee. Such behaviour flourishes when established institutional oversight boards are dysfunctional or are themselves corrupt.

This is why it is imperative that external oversight be established in countries that suffer from this problem. Universities could be required, for instance, to host on their websites as much information as possible regarding their educational activities. This could include data on exam question papers, assessments, theses, marked materials, student feedback and promotions. These data could be reviewed annually by a national regulatory body, or even by an international committee, to ensure that decisions have been properly taken, based on merit.

Institutional autonomy is heralded around the world as key to institutional excellence, allowing university leaders to run their institutions in the best way for their own students and to respond quickly and innovatively to opportunities. However, autonomy is only as good as the people who wield the devolved authority. Where processes are corrupted by bias and internal politics, it is a recipe for mediocrity and failure. South-east Asia must do better.

Afroz Ahmad Shah is an assistant professor of structural geology at Universiti Brunei Darussalam.


Print headline: Audits can protect fairness



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