Competitive Advantage for Australian Higher Education Through Coordinated Student Credential Verification

The use of blockchain technology by colleges and institutions to reliably record qualifications they have awarded is gaining traction. These blockchains are used by the institutions as immutable records of qualifications issued. A unique code quoted on any certificate can be used by anyone via the internet to instantly verify whether a claimed qualification is genuine, and to inspect details, such as the years of study, grades, subject descriptors, and so on.

In the cases where such technology is used, the blockchains are organised at the individual awarding institution level. And, of course, global implementation by institutions is extremely patchy.

As argued below, there is a real opportunity for us to gain a competitive advantage and to further enhance the reputation and quality of Australian Higher Education by turning this use of blockchain on its head. Specifically, rather than relying on individual institutions to implement blockchains, we should embed a nationally supported, and independently facilitated and verified blockchain, within our visa and institutional enrolment processes. In essence, creating a user rather than supplier oriented blockchain.

Let me take a step back to explain my thinking.

The higher education sector is slowly recovering from the external shock of COVID. A recent global IDP research survey (October 2022) found that Australia is now the second-most preferred destination for international students.

Unfortunately, the recovery in Australia is not plain sailing. On the 14th of November, the Times Higher Education ran an article entitled “Australian visa grants to Indian subcontinent students plummet”, reporting on the nose-diving of visa approval rates. A key reason cited in the article is the current verification process:

“It also coincides with a visa processing crisis after the former federal government cut A$875 million (£492 million) from the immigration department’s budget, prompting a blowout in waiting times. The department has attempted to redress this by recruiting more than 180 new staff so far, and by redistributing the processing workload to less stretched teams.”

The Department of Home Affairs has been under intense pressure from the sector to clear the backlog, setting a simplified, low-risk appetite approach. What we suggest here would greatly enhance this.

When it comes to the international student market, you would know that nothing is the same. COVID has accelerated the mega-trend within higher education of degrees travelling to students rather than the other way round. And that IDP survey found the first choice for the 11,000 surveyed students is Canada. Before the pandemic, the top three destinations of choice did not include Canada, but rather had the UK and the USA in the mix. Now 3rd and 4th choices, respectively.

We have in TEQSA a strong regulator that works to assure that our high quality is maintained. Our trusted quality gives us an edge on the competition, but we are constantly needing to innovate and adapt to keep up with, and accelerate past, the competition. Canada and post-Brexit Britain are proving to be highly adaptable competitors, adjusting settings to attract international students, and putting in place innovations to more efficiently apply their resources to improve the quality of programs. Visa processing is part of the competitive landscape.

One area TEQSA is providing particularly strong leadership in, is with respect to addressing the growing problem of academic cheating. TEQSA just last month announced that they had blocked 150 websites set up to enable students to cheat on assessments. This is great. But there is another form of cheating that is not currently being addressed by this initiative. Specifically, the risk of fake credentials being used by overseas students to gain entry to Australian programs of study.

Whilst there are significant penalties for applicants who provide false information when applying for student visas and genuine temporary entrant (GTE) status into Australia, a cursory online search identifies many purveyors willing to produce fake documentation – indicating strong demand. A similar search yields numerous discussions claiming the successful fraudulent use of this documentation. The Australian Home Affairs visa processing finds fake credentials through its sampling, but no agent or institution we have spoken to believes that anywhere close to all fakes are identified. The problem is, even under the current procedures that include limited sampling of certificates, the issuing of Australian student visas is uncompetitively slow. The Home Affairs website indicates that “90% of (student) visas are processed in 5 months”.

Institutions have a moral and regulatory obligation to ensure students are equipped to complete the programs they are enrolled in. Whilst there is no explicit requirement in the HESF or National Code to check the veracity of claimed qualifications, compliance of HESF 1.1.1, 5.3 and National Code 2.2 can only be achieved by doing so. This checking is undertaken once the students arrive on campus and is undertaken manually.

The validation of credentials is, of course, important for all sectors of our economy. That importance though is magnified for our sector. Our core business, after all, is the issuing of qualifications.

The key objectives for any process for handling credential verification are to maintain the integrity and competitiveness of our higher education system and to ensure we protect the interests of all students.

This is the perfect application for blockchain technology. A cross-sector blockchain solution would:

  1. Increase the efficiency and effectiveness of verification processes
  2. Reduce compliance risk and waste
  3. Maintain an emphasis on protecting the interests of students.

The technology is now established and would greatly reduce the duplication of effort across institutions and the Department of Home Affairs. Whilst there are several ways to facilitate the management and maintenance of a blockchain solution, perhaps the simplest would be to use a single independent organisation to facilitate and manage it. My suggestion is that international students would be required to submit their claimed qualifications to the independent organisation that would verify their qualifications with the issuing Provider in parallel with the other Home Affairs processes. Once verified, the student’s qualifications would be placed in the blockchain for instant checking by Home Affairs and institutions.

There are several advantages to such an approach.

  1. Students will be protected. Genuine qualifications will be appropriately valued, students with fake qualifications will be protected from enrolling in programs they are unlikely to succeed in, and the quality of the learning experience will be enhanced for legitimately enrolled students.
  2. Immutability of the blockchain will improve trust.
  3. Fraud risk is eliminated.
  4. Auditability is enhanced.
  5. Improved International Competitiveness. The Times of India for example recently (28th September) that the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) now requires qualification certification to accompany all student visa applications. The number of Indian students enrolled in Germany has doubled since 2018. The visa delays reported for the non-blockchain facilitated German approach would be eliminated.
  6. Institutional and government efficiency will be transformed by eliminating duplication of effort by multiple organisations. The responsibility and cost of credential verification will be shared across the sector, improving both the efficiency and the effectiveness of our activities.
  7. Use of the independent intermediary would speed up processing times and facilitate touchless straight through processing of visa and course applications.
  8. Speed and accuracy of visa and course application processing is improved by minimising touch points and human error.

In summary, redesigning our processes for qualification verification through a user-oriented independently facilitated block chain further protects students and the sector, whilst enhancing efficiency and effectiveness.

We are still recovering from the direct impacts of covid and the collateral damage to the sector of how the pandemic was managed. As the evidence cited in the Times Higher Education article this week indicates, we cannot afford to wait.

Professor Andrew Flitman is a Principal Advisor with Wells Advisory and a leading expert on higher education, research, and regulation.