When I taught a "pre-session" course I was surprised at the levels of plagiarism. Do universities even want to stamp it out?by / October 12, 2017 / Leave a comment
Vice-chancellors’ pay became a hot topic over the summer period and has been linked to the rising cost of tuition fees. Vice-chancellors have defended their salaries by pointing out that they manage huge budgets and are paid less than premier league footballers and bankers. These comments did little to defuse the situation, serving merely to underline the fact that universities are now businesses, with astute financial managers at the helm. The monetisation of higher education started many years ago. But nowhere is it more blatant than in the way we treat our overseas students.
I have recently been employed by a reputable university, teaching on a pre-sessional course—that is to say, a course in English aimed at students for whom English is an additional language. Many of these students then “progressed,” regardless of their actual progress, to taught Masters programmes in Management, Business and Finance, Human Resources Management or International Business.
Charming though these—mainly Chinese—students were, they didn’t exude a passion for their chosen discipline; rather, they were grimly intent on gaining the piece of paper that would give them the edge in the jobs market. Given that some of the students struggled to string more than a few words together in English, you would be forgiven for thinking that they’d be facing an uphill—or even a losing—battle.
But that’s where you’d be wrong, as I soon found out. For it is in everyone’s interests—not least the universities whose fees for foreign students are not inconsiderable—for these students to return to their countries of origin armed with their cherished awards and their beefed-up CVs. There are various means available to students that will enable even the weakest among them to succeed. Some of the help that is available is legitimate. In-sessional support would be one such example. But there are other strategies employed by students that amount to nothing less than outright cheating.
When submitting an assignment, the low-ability student will often use his or her common sense and use not only someone else’s ideas, but their forms of expression as well. This is plagiarism, of course. It is frowned on in academia—or, to be more truthful, academia makes a show of frowning on it.
Plagiarism wasn’t much of an issue back in the dark ages, i.e. before the digital revolution. It has now become so prevalent in students’ work that dissertations are routinely passed through plagiarism detection software prior to marking. It was inevitable that once such software was made available so there would develop the means by which a student can alter the formatting of a text so as to avoid its detection.
Necessity being the mother of invention, the linguistically-challenged will understandably resort to any means possible to secure, at the very least, a pass grade. These students’ written work was therefore often a strange mixture of intelligible (and therefore plagiarised) prose and gobbledegook. Sadly, when marking their assignments, I came to welcome the plagiarised material—as only then did I stand a chance of understanding what they were trying to say.
I must admit that initially I was shocked by the extent to which students blatantly plagiarised others’ work. But what was more shocking was the jaded response I received from every single academic I discussed it with. They all mentioned the fact that it had been going on for several decades. One even said to me, “Well, if they don’t lift content off the internet, they go one step further and pay someone to write their entire dissertations for them.” ‘But that’s cheating!” I protested. “Yes,” they replied. “But what’s the alternative?”
What they are getting at is this: universities have come to rely on the cash that overseas students bring in. Students will stop coming here if there is a chance they may leave empty-handed, and the flow of cash will then dry up. If one university were to take a stand and try to protect its standards, the others would jump in and plug the gap. After all, universities are now operating in the marketplace—as these overpaid vice-chancellors keep reminding us.
The Government and the OFS (Office for Students) can no longer ignore a problem that has reached epidemic proportions. Indeed, when the Times revealed the extent of the problem last year, they reported that 50,000 students had been caught cheating over a period of three years. Understandably, perhaps, the worst offenders were international students (i.e. those from non-EU countries). They were found to be four times more likely to cheat than any other student group.
The QAA (the Quality Assurance Agency)—the independent body for quality in higher education—has recently published fresh guidelines to universities on how to tackle cheating. This might prove to be a case of too little, too late. When Dan Rigby of Manchester University first reported on the use of “essay mills” in 2010, the online essay industry was already well-established. He even suggested that “subcontracting some of the work” was an inevitable consequence of the commodification of education.
I wish I could see an end in sight. It would be encouraging to think that prospective employers will eventually realise that some of these MBAs—and, indeed, many other similar qualifications—do not amount to anything more than an acknowledgement that the student could afford to pay the fees for such a course. They would then see the piece of paper for what it is: a piece of paper. The demand for these courses would subsequently start to decline.
But perhaps that is too idealistic. The symbiotic relationship that has developed between our universities and overseas students is now so entrenched that any significant withdrawal of patronage could seriously jeopardise the viability of many of our higher educational establishments. The financial acumen of those overpaid vice-chancellors would then be put to the test, and, who knows, their high salaries might even be justified.