English deficit leads to cheating

July 7, 2006

The overseas market is crucially important but managing it presents many pitfalls

Desperate overseas students resort to dishonesty because of language problems, reports Tony Tysome

Language difficulties among Chinese students on courses in the UK are so acute that some are resorting to cheating in a desperate attempt to pass their exams, academics have warned.

Chinese students are employing a wide range of cheating methods, from writing on erasers or other objects they take into exams to memorising and reproducing entire essays written by others or adopting a copy-and-paste approach to written assignments, The Times Higher has been told.

But academics who have witnessed cheating and who sometimes struggle to help their overseas students to overcome the language barrier say that institutions are often creating the problem with "unscrupulous" recruitment strategies.

Swansea University, where about 35 Chinese students have been accused of cheating in exams, uses home-grown rather than international English-language tests as part of the process of assessing applications from overseas students.

One Swansea academic, who did not wish to be named, said: "The reason the university does this is because it wants to maximise its fee income." He said that instead of using international language tests, such as the International English Language Testing System relied on by most universities, Swansea uses its own.

"The university has been offering students courses it knows they cannot benefit from," he added.

Colwyn Williamson, co-ordinator for the Campaign for Academic Freedom and Standards, who has been counselling one of the students accused of cheating, commented: "The university is recruiting these students as cash cows and therefore accepting them with a level of linguistic competence that presents a major problem."

Chris Shei, a Taiwanese lecturer in linguistics at Swansea who conducted research into plagiarism among Chinese students, said: "There is a definite connection. A student with a high language proficiency will not have to cheat. This is a big problem that requires serious investigation."

Beatrice Merrick, director of services and research at the UK Council for Overseas Student Affairs, said some students with language problems tried to get by using "patch writing" - interspersing passages of other people's work with their own.

She blamed deficiencies in the International English Language Testing System and said: "It is not a perfect test. Students are not required to write anything at length in English until they get to the UK, when it can come as a bit of a shock to the system."

Andy Gillett, principal lecturer in the School of Combined Studies at Hertfordshire University, one of the UK's top recruiters of Chinese students, said overseas students sometimes had "unrealistic expectations"

about how their language skills should improve.

He said: "There are some who should not be here - where we do not know how they got the required scores on their English tests. Sometimes we just want to say 'go home, and save your parents' money'."

A Swansea spokesperson said: "The number of students caught cheating in examinations is very small but fluctuates from year to year. The number of reported cases this year is above average.

"With due process of unfair practice investigations and appeals under way, it would be premature and potentially prejudicial to individual students to speculate on whether there is a systematic reason for this increase."

tony.tysome@thes.co.uk

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