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July 25, 2003

Academe's corner-cutting culture, not students, is to blame for cheating, says Frank Furedi

Last week 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 a widespread practice.

The survey found 1,600 cases of plagiarism this year and most of the universities polled indicated that there had been a significant increase in cheating. There is little doubt that the figures cited in the report are an understatement of the true state of affairs. One chief examiner in a social science department said she simply switched off when she realised that about one in five essays were, at least in part, plagiarised. Not surprisingly, numerous departmental meetings have been devoted to this problem in order to contain its corrosive impact.

"Student debt" has recently become an all-purpose explanation for virtually every problem that afflicts higher education in the UK. So it is not surprising that the survey suggested that the increasing cost of going to university "could" be causing an increase in plagiarism. The idea that financial difficulty encourages undergraduates to cheat is an insult to the many working-class students who push themselves to realise their potential.

And experience suggests that someone from a financially comfortable middle-class background is no less likely to cheat than an undergraduate facing serious debt. No, financial pressure does not transform university students into cheats.

Nor is the culprit the internet, another factor blamed by academics in the survey. The internet facilitates students in plagiarism. Indeed, it turns plagiarism into child's play. But this technology does not possess the moral power to incite otherwise honest students to pass off other people's work as their own.

It is the prevailing instrumentalist orientation towards education, dominating British campuses that is responsible for the normalisation of plagiarism. In a world where often students are not expected to read real books, is it any surprise that sometimes the work they hand in is not a real essay? Departments that encourage their staff to circulate their lecture notes and to provide other resources that short-circuit the process of learning may well be inculcating their undergraduates with the habit of pretend education. Students have always cited and talked about authors they have never read. But today we often actively help them not to read. Such short-sighted pragmatism helps foster a climate where a cavalier attitude towards the attainment of knowledge leads to an equally casual attitude towards other people's work. Second-hand study and repeating bullet points from lecture slides encourage not only the borrowing of other people's ideas but also their work.

There is little doubt that the morality that drives students to copy other people's work and present it as their own is not all that different from the instrumentalist ethos towards knowledge that dominates university life.

Plagiarism, once considered by generations of undergraduates as something akin to a sin, is increasingly experienced as morally neutral.

Students caught cheating are more likely to feel a sense of irritation at being caught than to feel a sense of shame, humiliation or remorse. And it really is not their fault. A university culture that commodifies knowledge sends the kind of signals that suggest that taking opportunist shortcuts is not a big deal.

The problem does not lie with the students. The fault lies with an institution that is fast forgetting the meaning of real university study and therefore, by implication, of plagiarism. That is why many departments are having torturous meetings about whether an essay containing five paragraphs of copied material is really plagiarism. That is why some academics are agonising over whether their students really knew the meaning of plagiarism when they cut and pasted a couple of pages into their essay.

And that is why some colleagues have decided that it is all too much of a hassle to worry about and turn a blind eye to a practice that ultimately shortchanges the student.

Frank Furedi is professor of sociology at the University of Kent.

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