Businesses could sue institutions if recruits do not deliver, reports Stephen Strauss.
If universities allow large numbers of students to cheat in order to pass their courses and graduate, can employers unhappy with the quality of the "human product" later sue schools?
This is one of the questions provoked by a large-scale Canadian study of cheating in universities. Some 53 per cent of undergraduates admitted to seriously cheating in their written work, according to the research by Julia Christensen Hughes of Guelph University and Donald McCabe of Rutgers University.
Jack Mintz, professor of business at the University of Toronto, raised the question in response to the findings. He said: "The argument might be that if someone leaves a university with a degree, it is a bona fide statement that they have ability. If a person was totally incompetent and cheated, and the university passed them, I guess it raises the legal question: does the employer have the right to go after a university, asking 'how did you ever give a degree to this person?'"
The study, published in The Canadian Journal of Higher Education , reports the responses of 14,913 undergraduates, 1,318 postgraduates, 683 teaching assistants and 1,902 faculty at 11 Canadian institutions. It reveals an almost universal disdain for certain proscribed activities.
Some 80 per cent of undergraduates, 73 per cent of graduates and 61 per cent of teaching assistants report sharing an assignment with other students, to have an example to work with. Similarly, 79 per cent of undergraduates, 63 per cent of graduates and 49 per cent of teaching assistants report working on assignments with others even when a professor explicitly asks for individual work.
The survey also shows widespread incidence of flagrant cheating. Some 38 per cent of undergraduates admit getting questions and answers from those who have taken a test; 35 per cent confess to copying text from the web and 25 per cent say they have fabricated or falsified lab data.
On a positive note, the higher students are in education, the less they cheat. While 58 per cent report serious cheating in tests in high school, in university the figure is 18 per cent and in graduate school 9 per cent.
Similarly, 73 per cent report serious cheating on written work in high school, falling to 53 per cent in university and 35 per cent in graduate school.
Three quarters of faculty and 80 per cent of teaching assistants report having suspected students of cheating in the past year.
Dr Christensen Hughes, director of Guelph's Teaching Support Services, said: "I think it's important that universities do everything they can to create cultures of integrity. It is essential that the degrees we confer are based on the highest ethical standards."
But claims that the study is an indication of poor student ethics is disputed. William Watson, a professor of economics at McGill University, points out in a newspaper column that the study admits to several severe methodological limitations. Response rates were between 5 per cent and 25 per cent at the institutions surveyed, and there was an overrepresentation of women - 66 per cent compared to 34 per cent of men, among undergraduates.
Professor Watson writes that the relatively low number (6 per cent) of undergraduates reporting crib notes on tests and sending in copied term papers (2 per cent) indicate that "universities aren't really rotten with cheating".
But Professor Mintz is convinced that universities are likely to face lawsuits from employers in the future. He said: "I could see someone legally making that kind of challenge."