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Cheating in exams has been a constant of tertiary student life, but after institutions largely abandoned pen-and-paper tests during the COVID-19 pandemic years, some NSW universities are reporting unprecedented attempts to rort the system.
At the University of Sydney, the number of students caught cheating in exams more than tripled in 2022 over the previous year. The University of NSW reported a 79 per cent rise over the same period. In one case at UNSW in 2022, 194 engineering students were caught online during a 2½-hour exam discussing each exam question.
Universities are grappling with a record surge in examination cheating attributed to online assessments.Credit: Peter Braig
Given the huge rise in detected cheating, it is unsurprising that since the University of Sydney returned to pen-and-paper exams, it recorded a 45 per cent drop in attempts to trick and beat the system. In the second semester, just 5.5 per cent of exams will be online and international students are required to be on campus. However, other tertiary institutions are sticking with online testing. UNSW will focus instead on how to design assessments to minimise the chances of misconduct.
The overseas education industry is worth about $40 billion to Australia annually, trailing only iron ore, coal and natural gas as an export, but government cutbacks have forced economies on the tertiary sector. University of Western Australia academic integrity expert Guy Curtis noted some universities liked online exams for their marking efficiency, lack of need for physical venues and an ability to avoid paying or organising people to supervise.
The issue of university students cheating, or engaging in what is euphemistically referred to as “academic misconduct”, might sound straightforward, but it is actually rather complex. It involves ethics, economics, culture and technology.
The current generation of undergraduates is what is known as “digital natives”, which is where the cultural and technological elements come in. Universities have a duty to help students understand the profound difference between the pursuit of knowledge through reason and rigorous intellectual investigation, and accessing so-called known unknowns via the web. Wikipedia, for example, is a useful resource for solving social occasion disputes about facts, but it is hardly more than a starting point for academic study. Nor is collusion or the use of online platforms including Facebook, WeChat and Discord.
Even before these latest figures surfaced, for years media reports traced a flourishing underground online trade in essays and the like. One 2008 study found at least half of Australian university students claimed they had cheated at least once, although a good proportion committed relatively minor indiscretions such as lying to gain extensions of time on due dates for assignments (23 per cent) and altering attendance records (21 per cent).
Anyone with the intelligence to be at university knows cheating is cheating – and that it is not acceptable, on any level. Australia’s universities owe it to themselves, their students and the nation to publicly adopt a zero-tolerance policy on “academic misconduct”. They should make it clear they charge fees but are not, in any way, for sale.
Cheating unchecked has the potential to hurt the university sector. Last month we learnt institutions are scrambling to prevent overseas students rorting the entry system with fake secondary school diplomas and English-language tests, prompting them to consider stricter rules for Chinese nationals to stop the further erosion of standards as the industry grapples with increasing dependence on international students for survival. Competition is fierce among the world’s universities and, for the ablest students, an Australian institution is rarely the first choice.
The quality of entrants and the quality of the education are paramount. Cheating only undermines the credibility of the student, the institution and the qualification.
Bevan Shields sends an exclusive newsletter to subscribers each week. Sign up to receive his Note from the Editor.
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