Column – Alistair Shaw
This weeks annual story ( Sunday Star Times ) on universities cracking down on student cheats was frustrating on almost all levels.
Academic Integrity vs Cheating in Corporatised Universities
This week’s annual story ( Sunday Star Times ) on universities cracking down on student cheats was frustrating on almost all levels.
As a former academic it’s absolutely clear to me that the numbers presented are palpably low, in particular if – as the article suggests – “academic misconduct” includes plagiarism and unauthorised collaboration. Further, the diversity in reported numbers between the institutions clearly indicates that institutions are capturing the data quite differently from one another so the comparisons are meaningless. The box-out at the end of the article suggests that misconduct refers to cheating in exams but the article itself refers to plagiarism. Given that plagiarism is inclusive from poor citation of sources – which should result in a reduced grade – the numbers must be much higher. I would be surprised if there wasn’t an example in virtually every course that involves an essay.
This though was un-investigated. So too the most shocking part of the story: the report that at the University of Canterbury a student was sentenced to community service, and another ordered to do eight hours unpaid labour, where at the University of Auckland a student was fined $250, where such fines can reportedly extend to $750.
Where do the institutions get off, and what systems do they have, that result in such manifestly disproportionate punishments?
As I noted above, when I was an academic I routinely detected low-levels of plagiarism where the appropriate response was to require the student to review the rules relating to citation and quotation. In one instance I detected a student who had cut the entire essay off the internet and submitted it as his own. I called him in for a meeting, and since the outcome was likely to be that he would fail the course, I also arranged for the advocate from the students’ association to be present. The student was contrite and fessed up immediately: too stressed, too much on, had gotten behind. This was, after all, a common enough situation. I took the opportunity though to explain to him exactly what the crime was that he had committed: one against the academy, against the entire process of knowledge production, against scholarship and against the entire meaning of the institution that he was enrolled in.
I would have thought that this was normal, but in fact the advocate told me that in the dozens of such cases that she’d been part of this was the first time that such an explanation had ever been presented to the student. In her experience the conversation had always been in terms of rules that had been breached – as if the offense was merely technical and removed from what the institution is meant to stand for.
When I was a more engaged parent – and I’m certainly not claiming to be any good at that – I was taken by the writing of Barbara Coloroso whose best known work is “ Kids are worth it : giving your child the gift of inner discipline”. She’s talking about little children – and then applies this to secondary school students – but it comes from the principle that you should treat all human beings as such, and where possible as adults. She lectures on “the difference between punishment and discipline—why one works and the other only appears to”.
There’s so much good sense in this. Punishment is imposed from without, creates resentment and is about blame, pain, and control. It is too commonly a feature of our institutions of higher learning where students sign up to a booklet-sized list of their “obligations” and then are punished into conformity. Only in this model could a student be fined, given community service or enslaved (work without reward). Consequences need to be appropriate, in Coloroso’s terms “Reasonable, Simple, Valuable, Practical”, which means, at the very least, associated with the offence. Academic consequences for academic misconduct: losing marks or grades, requiring attending at workshops on citing properly, even failing papers. These all make sense. Slavery and fines – how are they connected to the academic exercise?
At the heart though it comes down to what the institution is. Is it really a prison or is it, in the words of Ronald Barnett in the words of Ronald Barnett, an imagining place (which is after all at the heart of all scholarship)? For Barnett, emeritus professor at the Institute of Education, University of London, the art of university leadership “the art of university leadership… [should be] one of encouraging and orchestrating collective imagining”. This could not stand in greater contrast to the university that sees itself primarily as regulatory authority. Our institutions talk about students as being important to them. In their exercise of bringing the knower and the known together they could start by seeing students as free adults in pursuit of knowledge, and treating them accordingly.