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Is everyone really cheating?

12 November 2019 | news

Taking paid holiday trips overseas instead of completing professional electives, buying essays from ghost writers—media reports would seem to suggest that cheating is a common occurrence at New Zealand universities. 

Recent headlines focused on medical students falsifying accounts of overseas electives. Earlier this year, TVNZ ran a story with the headline Buying essays from ghost-writers allegedly widespread among international students at NZ universities. This included statements like ‘Chinese students have told 1 NEWS that as many as half of the international students studying at Auckland University buy their essays from ghost-writers’.

Similar stories have appeared every year or two over the past decade built on similar claims by anonymous sources saying that cheating is ubiquitous.

So how widespread is this? And what are universities doing to combat cheating and uphold academic integrity?

The cheating stories are usually built on anecdote and claims made by individuals. Empirical evidence to support claims as to the scale of cheating is generally lacking. Not surprising, perhaps, as cheating is an offence, and those participating do their best to hide it.

Universities know students face huge pressure to successfully complete their courses and qualifications. This pressure can be exacerbated for international students, whose families often take on significant debt to put their children through a university education.

University measures

New Zealand universities are independent and each has its own suite of mechanisms for deterring, detecting, and managing cheating. They work in combination and mutually reinforce each other.

All eight universities:

  • publish online policies about academic integrity and detailed processes for investigating claims of academic misconduct
  • periodically remind staff about academic integrity and remind them of ways they can detect it and the processes to follow when it is detected or suspected
  • have resources and support available for academic staff
  • encourage or require academic staff to include a statement on academic integrity in course outlines and to remind students about academic integrity in the first lecture of each new course
  • require students make a declaration when they submit assignments that they have read and understood relevant policies regarding academic
  • use software like TurnItIn to detect plagiarism.

Most universities also provide support and training for academic staff on ways of reducing academic misconduct by the way in which assessments are designed. This includes things like tasks that require students to draw on original scenarios or recent events. Or that include providing evidence of the process followed in completing an assessment.

Seven universities cover expectations around academic integrity when orienting new students. For four universities this is now being done by compulsory online academic integrity courses.

Universities are also experimenting with a range of additional supplementary options. If successful, most or all will be adopted more widely by the sector. These include:

  • limiting the proportion of academic credit able to be gained by unsupervised assessment
  • using an oral component (presentation) around each unsupervised assessment
  • additional processes in examination rooms to prevent cheating, including checking student photo ID to verify identity, randomly assigning seating to reduce the potential for copying, and banning use of all electronic devices
  • redirecting students who try to access an essay writing site from a university’s own network to a university webpage warning them about the consequences of academic misconduct.

System measures

As well as measures at the level of individual universities, system-wide safeguards are also in place:

  • The Academic Quality Agency (AQA) undertakes a regular cycle of audits of all eight universities. These audits consider all aspects of academic quality, including the ways that universities address academic integrity and misconduct. In the most recent round, several commendations and recommendations were made, but no significant weaknesses or issues were identified.
  • The Deputy Vice-Chancellors Academic of the eight universities meet several times a year and share ideas and good practice around academic integrity.
  • UNZ operates a ‘complaints’ email where staff and students are encouraged to report evidence of academic misconduct by other staff or students or by an institution. Since this was established in 2017, no matters of academic misconduct have been reported.
  • Several national mechanisms also give confidence that graduates are leaving universities with the skills and knowledge expected (ie, have actually done the necessary work to pass). These are:
    • The Committee for University Academic Programmes (CUAP) is responsible for reviewing and approving all proposals to add or amend academic programmes and qualifications. This includes a ‘Graduating Year Review’ where independent reviewers check with both graduates and employers to see if graduates have the skills, knowledge and capabilities expected. Though these reviews do make occasional recommendations, none have seen employers flagging significant gaps in graduate skills, knowledge and/or capabilities.
    • The Tertiary Education Commission monitors graduate outcomes for people who enter the New Zealand workforce after graduation. They do not find significant levels of under- employment or unemployment among graduates—things that might be expected if graduates did not have the necessary skills, knowledge and capabilities to gain and maintain graduate level employment.
    • Around 28% of all graduates are part of a professional discipline overseen by an industry/professional body, including lawyers, accountants, engineers, doctors and nurses. These professional bodies admit graduates into their professions through a range of different mechanisms, where the skills, knowledge, and capabilities of the graduates are verified. There is no evidence of graduates in these fields emerging without the necessary skills, knowledge and capabilities.

Academic integrity is at the heart of the university system. The overwhelming majority of students do not cheat, but those who do put at risk the reputation of the degrees earned by all of them.

And the students who do cheat leave themselves open to all sorts of consequences, including the emotional and financial risks of being caught, the risk of blackmail, poor data security, and getting poor quality work in return for their payment.

Cheating is not a new phenomenon, but technological developments have enabled new methods that require swift and robust responses. New Zealand universities are working together, and with colleagues overseas, to protect the integrity of the tertiary system—and to offer support to students who might otherwise be tempted into an illegal activity that could blight their academic and professional futures.