Monday, 24 October 2016


In my reading of the education press this week, I came upon this interesting but rather worrying article. Let me state from the outset that the subject is not something that need concern us overmuch at KY. However, since all our young people are headed for major universities and that the problem seems to be growing exponentially, it is worth having a look at it.

Cheating in Higher Education is not new; cheating, per se, is not new. In my 43 years of education around the world, I have seen it in many shapes and forms. It is, I suppose, inevitable that in our digital world, the opportunities to cheat have taken on new forms which are increasingly difficult to control. The article that I have been reading this week deals specifically with the writing of academic essays at undergraduate level. When dealing with the more sophisticated suppliers, it appears that for a comparatively small sum, one can get an essay written and returned with 24-48 hours. The product is 100% original and will get past even the toughest scrutiny. It is even likely to earn a respectable grade.

I have known that this sort of activity was going on for some time. Back in the early nineties when I was working in the UAE, one of our colleges started a degree programme in Software Engineering. The man who ran the course told me that it was difficult to get students to deal directly with coding and other technical problems set for homework, as they just went online, paid a few dollars and back came the solution. This guy was so incensed about it that he did a fairly lengthy survey and found, among other things, that his own son (then taking IGCSE) was getting his French homework done online - he apparently hated French and was not very good at it.

What I find particularly disturbing about the article mentioned above is that the author claims that essay-writing "companies" are now blatantly advertising their services on campuses throughout Europe and the States. It begs the question: what on Earth are the university authorities doing about it? Very little, it would appear.

Again, going back a few years, the biggest crime at university was plagiarism. This is largely a thing of the past thanks to very sophisticated academic software such as "Turnitin." With this programme on your PC, you can find virtually any original source of academic writing and it has pretty well killed off plagiarism in student essays. Instead, it appears, someone can now be paid to write the essay on your behalf.

Obviously, some subjects lend themselves more readily to this kind of treatment than others. Mathematics, the hard sciences, Medicine and Dentistry spring to mind as disciplines where there isn't much call for essay writing. When we look at others such as Law, Economics, English Literature, Philosophy or History, however, the situation is very different. Students of these subjects write essays as a standard method of grading and in the current climate of continuous assessment, the opportunities for serious abuse are considerable.

I said that the problem does not really concern us at KY. This is because we are exclusively assessed by examinations. Students are in a controlled environment under strict observation by invigilators and required to produce all they know without the benefit of texts, outside agencies or Google. Much as we may all hate the pressures that examinations place on students, it seems to me that they are still the only means we have to ensure complete fairness in assessing competency. I have already heard that some universities are considering reinstating them as assessment instruments in place of continuous monitoring or at least alongside it. I suppose it would be possible to memorise whole chunks of text one would regurgitate in an examination, but then for that to happen, one would need to know the questions beforehand. Knowing how strictly Cambridge expects us to obey rules of secrecy and confidentiality, that is most unlikely to happen. Maybe the despised examination is due for something of a renaissance at universities around the world. I will keep reading with interest and be sure to pass on anything I hear on the subject.

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