Cheating is hogging the headlines but, in the market-led university, there is a disturbing trend towards normalising bad practice, says Frank Furedi.
In recent months plagiarism in the British university has finally become news. On Sunday, The Observer listed it as one example of how market forces are contributing to falling academic standards. Of course, the number of cases of plagiarism has been rising for some time.
Two years ago the Plagiarism Advisory Service was established to deal with this widespread if unreported problem. And last summer, a poll of 31 British universities by BBC Radio 4's The World At One "uncovered" what most academics already knew - that plagiarism has become institutionalised on British campuses.
The really interesting story is not the well-known facts regarding the disturbing dimension of cheating but rather its normalisation. Unable to contain the problem of cheating, the higher education bureaucracy appears to have opted for the twin-track strategy of either ignoring it or normalising it. Ignoring the problem usually takes the form of claiming that plagiarism is not really a serious problem.
Individuals who express concern about the growing problem of cheating are often dismissed with the statement that they are exaggerating the scale of the practice.
This laid-back approach characterised the pronouncement of Ranald Macdonald of Sheffield Hallam University when he recently said on Radio 4's Today programme that there had been "hysteria built up" over the issue of plagiarism. As far as I can tell, the only response that can be characterised as hysterical, comes from university managers when they react to academics who want to take some decisive action against a plagiarist.
Of course, ignoring problems is often defined as "best practice" in management speak and is not confined to plagiarism. Nor is it as damaging as the trend towards normalising the practice through trivialising its effects. In the debate that surrounds this problem, there is a distinct tendency to treat plagiarism as if it is a form of bad practice, a minor offence or a learning problem. This cavalier approach towards what was once seen as a gross violation of the rules of academic behaviour reflects the mood of moral disorientation on campuses. As the purpose of the university has become increasingly unclear, academic integrity itself has become compromised. That is why "experts" on the subject of plagiarism appear more interested in explaining the problem away than in exposing its root causes.
It is worth looking at how so many of the attempts to account for the rise of plagiarism in fact serve to excuse it.
In recent years student debt has become a widely used explanation for the behaviour of undergraduates. Last year's Radio 4 survey on plagiarism suggested that the increasing cost of going to university could be the catalyst for the growth of cheating. The association of financial hardship with plagiarism is based on the patronising assumption that the poor have lower moral standards than those who are prosperous. It also represents an attempt to externalise the problem so that it has little to do with the intellectual and moral climate on campuses. Financial hardship does not turn undergraduates into cheats. Discussions with colleagues in different universities suggests that someone from a financially comfortable middle-class background is no less likely to cheat than an undergraduate facing serious debt.
A recently constructed variant of the student debt excuse is the argument that intense financial pressures are driving overseas students to cheat. It was reported that at a recent conference at Northumbria University titled "Plagiarism: Prevention, Practice and Policies", the claim was made that overseas students who face greater financial pressures than domestic ones may find plagiarism particularly tempting. Again, this shift from insulting domestic working-class students to debt-burdened overseas ones does little to explain why middle-class students also indulge in this practice. It's not always the economy, stupid.
Overseas students also bear the burden of another ingenious explanation for the phenomenon of cheating. Some experts claim there are cultures that encourage students to cheat because one way of honouring great thinkers is through reproducing their work. It appears that a tradition of uncritical copying makes it difficult for certain groups of overseas students to understand the difference between their work and that of others. While masquerading as a culturally sensitive account of why overseas students copy other people's work, this argument is based on the insulting premise that "they" can only imitate while others create.
By embedding copying within a cultural tradition it also sanctions it as a normal activity. In fact this culturally relativist argument not only trivialises the problem but also suggests it does not exist. One keynote speaker at the Northumbria University conference, Betty Leask, coordinator of International Staff and Student Services at the University of South Australia, argues that plagiarism is a cultural construct and that "plagiarism is not a universal principal". Obviously every form of transgression is a cultural construct. But if plagiarism is represented as an eccentric practice confined to outdated British universities, it really does become a very trivial issue.
Then there is the internet. The emerging group of plagiarism experts frequently point the finger at the internet. And yes, this wonderful technology facilitates students' ability to plagiarise. But technical explanations of social and moral problems are highly suspect. One expects the tabloid press to blame television for the rise of crime or video games for the growth of bullying. Academics ought to exercise a degree of scepticism towards such simplistic claims. One does not need to have a PhD in moral philosophy to appreciate that the internet does not possess the demonic power to incite otherwise honest students to pass off other people's work as their own. Nor does the internet account for the fact that most acts of plagiarism consist of students copying each other's work.
Probably the most disturbing attempt to normalise plagiarism is to treat it as a learning problem. At the Northumbria conference and elsewhere one hears the argument that some students lack the skills to understand what is meant by cheating. Consequently, numerous institutions are devoting greater resources towards providing students with the "skills" necessary to avoid the problem. In reality undergraduates have a reasonably good grasp of what it means to cheat. And they become better at it the longer they remain at university. Contrary to the prejudice that plagiarism is mainly practised by naive first-year undergraduates, their more cynical seniors in the third year are far more likely to plagiarise. And the reason for this is not because they lack the necessary learning skills, but because they have become all too wise in the ways of the university. It is when the idealism of the fresh-faced new undergraduate confronts the cynical practices of campus life that plagiarism turns into a problem.
And what can be more cynical than to treat plagiarism as a trivial issue that does not touch the integrity of academia? When the imperative of constructing excuses overrides the need to understand the problem of plagiarism, it is clear that what universities are in fact doing is accommodating the practice of cheating. This is but a prelude to accepting the institutionalisation of plagiarism. Is it any surprise that experts at the Northumbria conference called for changing the way that students'
learning is assessed in order to discourage plagiarism? Of course if we stop assigning students essays or, better still, giving them marks, there will be little incentive to cheat. But instead of confronting the issue this approach merely evades it.
The real problem is not that students cheat, but that they don't think that there is anything wrong with this behaviour. In an era where lecturers are encouraged to treat their students as customers, academic scholarship loses any inner meaning. The devaluation of scholarship and ideas means that it becomes difficult to cultivate the sense of idealism that is associated with the search for knowledge. If scholarship loses its meaning then plagiarism does indeed lose moral significance and can be redefined merely as poor work. But don't blame student debt, esoteric cultural norms, the internet or learning difficulties. It's the university, stupid.
Frank Furedi is professor of sociology at the School of Social Policy, Sociology and Social Research at the University of Kent.