Lecturers and tutors are under increasing pressure to pass students who should be failed, the Tertiary Education Union says.
The union's president, Sandra Grey, told Nine to Noon government policies demanding higher pass rates had prompted institutions to ask staff to be overly lenient on poorly-performing students.
She said the union heard repeated stories about the problem from its members.
"We've had staff who've been told to basically stand over students during a test and make sure that they can answer the question or being told to give another examination, let them re-sit and re-sit and re-sit until they pass," she said.
Dr Grey said institutions were finding more cheating among students, but staff were often asked to ignore it.
"We are seeing perhaps institutions saying 'look, we've got a lot of these cases, can we just ignore the least worrisome, the ones that aren't too bad, can we just put them to one side?'"
The union said the problem was highlighted by a survey in which 63 percent of 1006 respondents said they were under more pressure to pass students to meet government targets than they were 10 years ago.
Most staff felt pressure to enrol students even if they lacked the prerequisite skills and knowledge.
One respondent wrote: "We have been pressured to change assessments, ignore cheating, pass students who are between 45 and 48 percent. Management re-enrol students who previously have not attended their classes and failed every paper they enrolled in - not just once but for several years."
Another said: "The emphasis on successful completion rates is hurting education standards. Lecturers [are] under intense pressure to pass students by managers; leading to acts of shameful manipulations, low quality assessments and exams."
Ms Grey said the problems were caused by government under-funding combined with policies that focused on competition and profit.
"They're being told either that it's none of their business who gets admitted to their courses, so that will be done by a company outside their department or an administrator... or they're being told to take everyone who wants to come into those courses," Dr Grey said.
"We believe everyone should have access to education, but they need it at the right level."
Dr Grey said staff were bullied or faced disciplinary action if they spoke out. She said they were told their courses might be axed if too few students were enrolled or if too few continued from one year to the next.
Well-being getting worse
The Tertiary Education Union survey also revealed a crisis in staff well-being, with most saying their jobs had got worse in the past 10 years, it says.
Almost 60 percent said they were working more hours.
Dr Grey said the union's members were among the most stressed workers in New Zealand.
"There's a very easy stress indicator which gives you a one-to-10 scale, and our members are saying that their stress levels are at a seven out of 10. The average for the population is 5.5."
"The big picture we've found is staff under absolute strain because they just don't have the resources to do the job well."
The union's vice-president, Phil Edwards, said staff were spending too much time on systems and processes and not enough simply looking after students.
"What academics once did, which was concentrated around teaching and learning, has become more around counting things and then having to justify pass rates and other key performance indicators," he said.
One of the union's polytechnic members, Carol Soal, said work had become more hectic and more focused on business models than on students.
Tutors were working with more students and that was having a knock-on effect on support staff.
A union member from a university, Sheeanda McKeagg, said institutions had fewer staff dedicated to helping Māori students because those roles were subsumed into general support roles.
"The students are left floundering to find out where to get the right paper advice, get the right support for accommodation or whatever it is," she said.
Tertiary Education Minister Paul Goldsmith said New Zealand spent a higher proportion of its total public expenditure on tertiary education than any other OECD country.
He said government funding for tertiary education institutions had increased 16.7 percent since 2008, and totalled about $2.3 billion in 2015.