Pakistan’s universities must do more to stop contract cheating

Enlisting miscreants to help improve understanding of contract cheating, as part of their punishment, could be a way forward, says Kholah Yaruq Malik

January 3, 2022
A Pan Am plane
Source: iStock

Do you remember the 2002 film Catch Me If You Can? Supposedly based on true events, it tells the story of the young con man and forger Frank Abagnale (played by Leonardo DiCaprio), who makes millions of dollars by posing as a Pan Am pilot. After a long game of cat and mouse with the FBI, he is finally caught – and then recruited, as part of his punishment, to help the agency catch other fraudsters.

I am always reminded of this film whenever I think about contract cheating.

This is a flourishing business in Pakistan, but one that has crept up on the country largely unawares. It was only when the pandemic hit that the extent of the problem became apparent.

With assessment now being based on coursework, or a traditional three-hour exam that students had 24 hours to complete, the opportunities for cheating were obvious. And given academics’ lack of experience in (and time for) giving continuous feedback on coursework or investigating its authenticity, plus the vagaries of internet access in rural Pakistan, the temptation to exploit those opportunities was also enhanced.

Hence, whether via essay mills, tutoring websites, bots that appear whenever you even mention academic assignments on social media, or even just willing family and friends, cheating appears to have been rife. Perhaps the opportunity to take shortcuts online explains why students at several universities protested vigorously when it was announced that their exams would be in-person after all.

There is a particular issue in transnational education (TNE), where I currently work. The distance learning and supported distance learning models on offer do tend to be staffed by people with experience of delivering digital assessment. However, with little or no oversight by the Western universities awarding the degrees during the pandemic, a lot of responsibility and accountability landed on newly developed and approved partnerships.

Indeed, even at the regulatory level, the challenges of TNE have not been completely understood. Pakistan’s Higher Education Commission has failed to ensure that TNE instructors are sufficiently trained and experienced to guarantee that assessment is rigorous and fair. The phrase “contract cheating” is hardly even mentioned on the commission’s website.

But it is not all down to the regulator. Universities that want to uphold their reputations and student satisfaction levels need to work harder to ensure integrity in their assessment designs. More generally, university leaders need to instil an institutional culture that values quality, authenticity and equity.

Unfortunately, however, many academics in Pakistan are not paragons of virtue, either. Academic honesty has been in free fall for a long time. Researchers are judged on the volume of their output, so they churn out articles without much concern for their rigour or integrity. Sometimes they plagiarise entire articles or buy them from essay mills. The regulator could help here by requiring any academic claiming credit for a scientific paper to face questioning from an informed audience, which includes foreign specialists (via video link) and which is recorded for future reference.

Once a culture of integrity is established, academics will be more motivated to combat cheating among their students. But how? Turnitin is one tool, but it is far from the full answer. It can tell you what was copied or paraphrased from where, but detecting that an essay has been written to order by a commercial company is much harder. Experienced markers will tell you that detecting contract cheating is possible, however, and training in this area has been shown in studies to improve assessors’ accuracy. But it is rarely offered.

This brings us back to Catch Me If You Can. Enlisting some of the cheats whom universities do catch to help them improve their tutors’ ability to spot other miscreants – as well as to understand why students are prepared to risk serious punishments by cheating in the first place – could be very effective. Given the extent of the problem, it at least seems worth a try.

Frank Abagnale’s fraud is not a good role model for any student – but the FBI’s ultimate use of his expertise could be a good role model for universities.

Kholah Yaruq Malik is dean of academics and internationalisation at the Millennium Universal Colleges, Pakistan.

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