The moral panic over student cheating must end

We need to call off the witch-hunt and trust in the capacity of our students to learn, says Bruce Macfarlane

September 14, 2017
Student and invigilator in exam room
Source: Liam Anslow

Academics have never entirely trusted students not to cheat. Few exams, for instance, have ever been conducted without an invigilator prowling the aisles in search of surreptitious copying or smuggled-in notes. But the current level of institutionalised distrust of students has reached such a pitch that it seems reasonable to call it a moral panic.

Stanley Cohen in Folk Devils and Moral Panics defined this sociological phenomenon as occurring when “a condition, episode, person or group of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests”. Youth culture – street-fighting Mods and Rockers in the 1960s, riotous, small-town “lager louts” in the 1980s or ecstasy-addled ravers in the 1990s – has often been the subject of moral panics. Currently, hardly a week goes by without outraged reports in the academic press about students plagiarising or cheating in exams. These stories add to the impression that such behaviour is increasingly rife, threatening the moral fabric of academic life.

The ubiquitous use of plagiarism detection software is one symptom of the panic. When it was adopted in universities more than a decade ago, we were promised that it would be used largely for educational purposes – to teach students how to avoid plagiarism. Now it is pervasive; applied to all student work, even their PhD proposals. Everything they submit is now treated with suspicion. The progressive approach that we were promised has proved to be empty rhetoric.

Modern students are also required to sign attendance registers at lectures, make authorship declarations when submitting every assignment, and even produce a copy of a death certificate if missing a class to attend a family funeral.

Then there is the growth of learning analytics. These systems track every movement that students make around the physical and virtual campus. Few students are even aware that statistics are being collected about them on this basis, let alone what the purpose is. While academics must jump through hoops to gain ethical approval for any small-scale research project, institutions are collecting large datasets about students without their knowledge or permission.

There is no doubt that some students do deliberately try to cheat to gain an unfair advantage. Like any group in society, including academic staff, there will always be some who seek to find an illicit shortcut to success. But is there any real evidence that students are any less trustworthy now than in the past? According to received wisdom, the internet has made cheating more common, but a 2012 study of doctoral students showed that incidences of plagiarism have actually fallen since the early to mid-1990s. There is also the question of intent. A large-scale European-wide study from 2014 concluded that the majority of student plagiarism is accidental. As with all moral panics, we seem to have lost all sense of proportion.

Mass higher education means that we now have many more students, and therefore more instances of plagiarism. The numbers remain proportionately low, but the anonymity brought about by massification has made it much easier for students, as a body, to be distrusted. They are much less likely to be known to their lecturers; they are barely a face, let alone a name, on the crowded modern campus. They are more likely to be identified through their ID number on an online learning platform. They lack a sympathetic, trustworthy human face.

The same dynamic is at work when established communities fear immigrant communities – until they get to know, at a personal level, some of the individuals they contain. It is the basis for discriminatory treatment.

Students are not even trusted any more to learn without being kept under constant surveillance. This is why academic non-achievements, such as their lecture attendance or their “participation” in class, are now graded. In 1963, the UK's Hale Committee on University Teaching Methods argued that the long university vacations were essential to helping students develop intellectual independence. Things have now come full circle, with the Conservative government planning to introduce two-year degrees: an indication of just how little they trust students to learn independently, without a lecture timetable to obey.

Recently, one of my more earnest students asked me whether she was allowed to say anything in an essay without providing a reference. This is a shocking indication of the extent to which modern students feel intellectually shackled by universities’ paranoid policies around plagiarism, which assume that no student could have an original thought. Nor are levels of trust helped by defensive institutional policies more generally, which cast students as customers in an exchange relationship.

Like all moral panics, fears about the level and effects of student cheating are being blown out of all proportion. We need to call off the witch-hunt and trust in the capacity of our students to learn. Otherwise, we risk turning them into docile and ultra-cautious pedants, rather than lovers of discovery and creativity.

Bruce Macfarlane is professor of higher education at the University of Southampton.

You've reached your article limit.

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments


Print headline: Student cheating is hardly a threat; this moral panic must end

Reader's comments (9)

I don't believe the writer has read the wider literature on the prevalence of cheating in high schools and undergraduate classrooms. It is increasing dramatically over previous years as moral norms erode.
I noticed that the author did not cite any sources to substantiate his claim that "Now [plagiarism detection software] is pervasive; applied to all student work, even their PhD proposals. Everything they submit is now treated with suspicion. The progressive approach that we were promised has proved to be empty rhetoric." What evidence can he provide to prove this assertion?
I truly believe we now live in a time where all forms of media and creative content are considered by many students to be fair game for copying without attribution. This is a function of the internet, google, and file sharing era, and an outgrowth of the modern phenomenon of post-modernism, where materials may be freely lifted, re-contextualized and presented as originality.
Prosessor Nacfarlane has reminded all of us of just how bad the learning environment is for students in a 21st Century University. In fact I genuinely feel for those students who have to plummet to such depths when choosing to cheat: but I suspect this was not the central purpose of the article. If, however, you want to rationalise those reasons which promote cheating, by appealing to our understanding of the plight of the 'modern' student, then emphasising just how bad things are for students becomes the unintended focus. Frankly I have little sympathy for cheats; and the continued appeal to our better senses does not soften my views on anybody using unfair means to grab an unfair advantage over another, whatever the setting. The claim that students are unaware of the rules of academic engagement is just laughable. There are now more resources thrown at students in their formative stages of study, all supported by an army of peripheral non academic 'agents' offering advice, for cheating to be an accident. Incidentally, I often wonder what schools are doing for us to receive such raw material. Let's get real here ... students know what they are doing and why. If they don't know what they are doing, then what the heavens are they doing at University in the first place.
I think this brings up a really good point, especially where this applies to postgraduate researchers whose submitted doctoral dissertations are now also increasingly subject to the panoptic scrutiny of plagiarism software. What this obfuscates is the lack of attention on the development of awareness and practice of integrity in research right from the beginning. Supervisors are an integral part of this; they cannot absolve themselves of all responsibility if their supervisee reaches the end of a research degree and does not know how to attribute others' work appropriately.
It's a bit hysterical-sounding of the author to ascribe only one accusatory motive to the use of I can think of nothing more hypocritical than an educator who refuses to trust other educators and demands that we trust students uncritically.
Plagiarism is not the problem. It's the assessment design that invites it.
I wrote about this problem a while ago and tried to offer some creative solutions.
I agree with the article. As a recent student, I can confirm that everything you submit/touch/work on is subject to plagiarism scans and scrutiny. The interesting thing about it all is that most students (that I met) couldn't define 'plagiarism' but they knew what they needed to do to get a below 20% score on TurnItIn. Tackling plagiarism is, of course, a big issue but the bigger issue is tackling why people cheat in the first place. When did the piece of paper with your name and degree on it become more valuable than the actual knowledge and skills you pick up along the way?

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments