The past few months have seen a multitude of revelations of cheating, academic dishonesty and sliding academic standards within Australian universities.
Commentary on these issues has, so far, focused on means of detecting and preventing fraud. Suggestions include revisions of the way we conduct assessments, or removing essays as tests of critical thinking. However, these measures treat the symptoms, not the cause.
The cause of academic dishonesty and other entrenched problems is the commodification of education, which has been increasing in recent years. Universities themselves must take substantial blame for this. By thinking of students as customers, we have turned education into a consumer good.
In the face of continuing cuts to funding, the search for new revenue streams has had serious consequences for our integrity. A number of worrying trends have emerged as a result of a shift in the way students view higher education. Because students now “buy” their education, their attitudes to university study have fundamentally changed.
The rise of plagiarism
The universal adoption of plagiarism detection software across the university sector shows how entrenched this problem is. At the more extreme end of the scale, students can buy bespoke assignments online. The recent exposure of the MyMaster website and a growing number of similar sites such as ThinkSwap are merely the tip of the iceberg.
The cost of ghost-written essays is falling as more companies take advantage of this growing market. Competition for university entry means that even high school students are using essay-writing services.
The fact that students can purchase assignments reduces an exercise in scholarship and critical thinking to a box that needs to be ticked in order to pass. It also misses the central aims of such exercises: retrieving, understanding and assessing evidence; coming up with solutions to problems; and communicating these ideas.
Students who use essay services value grades above learning. Such students may leave university without having acquired the core skills that essays are designed to develop.
Ditching the essay format is not a solution. Rather, we should be explaining why essays are valuable. Regardless of our disciplines, they train us in critical thinking and crisp communication.
Shortcuts as alternatives to real learning
Online delivery of material is comprehensive and convenient. And importantly for university finances, it is cheap. However, it does mean that participation is hidden.
This has two serious consequences. For assessment material such as online quizzes, we can never be certain who is completing the task. We can also never be sure that students are engaging with the course material.
What is the solution for disengaged students? Their task is clear: pass the exam. To cater for this need, many groups have sprung up offering concentrated sessions with this aim specifically in mind. They spruik “cram sessions” and “cheat sheets”. Often they are run by recent students who have “aced” the course, and their aim is simple: coach students in exam content.
Examinations aren’t necessarily an ideal way to test people. We can only use examinations to test part of the content of a unit. Results are then used as an indirect measure of how well a student understands the entire content.
However, cram sessions invert this aim. They generate students who can pass one specific exam, with no guarantee that they even understand the exam material, let alone the broader content.
Another shortcut is to simply make things up. Recently it was revealed that final-year medicine students at Sydney University falsified records of interviews with patients who were actually dead. In a supreme twist of irony, this exercise was designed to help them understand the plight of patients with chronic medical conditions.
But the worst of all shortcuts are the recent revelations of high-quality forgeries of testamurs from almost 100 Australian universities and TAFEs.
For some, a degree is no longer a statement of achievement and scholarship, but a passport into the high-end job market. Knowing something about the field you plan to enter seems to be not as important as the ticket to enter.
So what do we do to fix it?
A university degree implies that a graduate is capable of performing the roles we have certified them for. Over three-quarters of the students using the MyMaster essay-writing service were enrolled in finance or economics degrees.
One-third of the final-year class of medical students at Sydney University had irregularities in an assessment designed to teach them empathy.
Management of our personal finances and health are two fields where we place absolute trust in providers. Do we really want a future filled with corruptible financiers and doctors who have no empathy?
University study should be undertaken because you are passionate and interested in learning. Students are not paying to get a degree, they are paying to participate in a unique cultural institution that fosters rational inquiry, critical thinking and human progress.
What we can do about these issues is a much harder question. The problems we face are entrenched and have taken decades to ferment. They will probably take the same amount of time to be solved.
We can start by making it clear to students they will naturally do better if they are interested in learning about their chosen subject. But the onus for change is on universities and governments, not students.
Universities should not be run as businesses. Because where monetary interests are the primary concern, there is a clear scope for negative effects on academic integrity. Universities require stable government funding to ensure their pursuit of cash doesn’t corrupt the reason they exist in the first place.