This article is more than 5 years old

(Pre)posperous cheating

Phil Pilkington's HE narratives continue with a look at the economics of cheating
This article is more than 5 years old

Phil Pilkington is an Honorary Teaching Fellow at Coventry and Deputy Chair at Middlesex University SU

Cheating is commonly said to be a rapidly increasing problem – yet the QAA reported that around 17,000 students were caught cheating in 2017, about 0.7% of the total student population. Is it that there are few cheaters, or that so few are caught?

A survey carried out by Leicester University in the 1990s (thanks to the SRHE Student Experience Network, and before Google) found that students had a subtly graded perception of cheating offences. Almost all students thought impersonation at an exam was appallingly wrong, but many thought that borrowing a fellow student’s work to understand and even copy parts of an assignment was acceptable – if the fellow student agreed!

Cheating and plagiarism is a difficult subject which exercises academics, professional services, and management staff alike. Some of the cases of cheating are deeply saddening when students are driven to this as an expedient because of illness, caring from a sick parent, or working to cover living costs beyond accepted limits. Research in the late 80s showed that 15 plus hours per week of paid employment would begin to detrimentally affect academic performance to the extent of one grade level – and 20+ hours would then notch up a further grade loss. Why should this impact be a surprise now, and why should it – along with other real experienced conditions – be disassociated from the discussions about cheating?

There are categories of cheating that leave many unmoved by compassion: blatant electronic copying, purchasing work from (dark, satanic) “essay mills” – often carried out by those who have been failed beforehand by poor teaching and the failures of the recruitment process. As universities compete for students to maintain financial viability, entry grades are lowered but teaching and assessment practices do not change. So, once admitted, an alternative for students to dropping out is cheating, collusion, and plagiarism. Given the psychological, social, and financial commitments made, it is not difficult to empathise with some of the cheats.

Changing the way we assess

Two approaches are always suggested to the problem – one is to engineer assessments as cheat-proof processes, and the other is the ethical approach of warnings to students of the dangers to their integrity and (moral and economic) worth with the consequences of being discovered. The latter, with no surprise, has gained more support than the former.

The former approach is a challenge to academics, managers, and quality controllers. It requires creativity, considering alternatives to methods of teaching and assessment which have “worked so well over the years”. It is not pursued more vigorously because it requires considerable reform of assignments and assessments – and more importantly, requires a revised understanding of the mechanisms of learning in the 21st century.

Of course, the technological challenge of materials being available on the web has put into question some of the traditional forms of assignments for summative assessment – the essay and the dissertation. Given the scope and depth of materials available, and potential for algorithms for discernment of patterns and theory discriminations within some subject areas, the suggestion is for a radical change for assessments that meet these changes. Most students address learning their subject in an instrumental way: the recognition of the pedagogic instrumentality of the subject is important for developing the subject discipline beyond the traditional and outmoded ways of “setting an essay”.

What is possible is a form of meta-study of a subject, such that the student produces the “workings out” for an essay as something more important for assessment than the actual essay. This does require some imagination in redesigning not the curriculum, but the delivery and assessment strategies. We do need civil engineers to understand the principles of stress measurement and medical students to understand blood chemistry.

The moral approach

The moral shaming approach for cheats involves threats of sanctions, punishments, fines, and even criminalisation. We have seen that there are gradations of acceptability of the minor levels of cheating, but that material conditions can and do exert pressure on students to cheat. Given this approach is moral, one would hope that the sanctions against those caught would be sensitive to the mitigating circumstances. But disciplinary panels are notoriously varied in their outcomes, and mitigating circumstances will be difficult for some academic staff to grasp, especially when combined with academic departments who have been sheltered from the vicissitudes of the modern world.

Some cheating is spectacularly incompetent and should be noted for its naivety and desperation. A paradigm case of stupidity combined with heroic laziness that I came across was a student who bought a ‘project’ in the IT/business management area. The work appeared to be of a very high standard, surprisingly so as the student’s other work was not. Unfortunately for the student, the author of the project signed his name at the end of the project, his academic titles (PhD, Nepal University), and the cost of the project ($8 US).


The moral approach focuses on fairness, but there are many aspects to fairness for students. Interesting research by Medway and Roper on the value of bought essays raised questions on the consistency and robustness of the assessment process as a whole. The research interrogated whether purchased essays did produce the quality that was claimed for them, and whether they would raise alarms as plagiarised work. In the world of the mills, a sliding scale of prices applies for essays and the researchers ordered essays of varying quality. Premium prices were ‘guaranteeing first class results’.

All essays passed through the institutions’ plagiarism detection system with flying colours. What was interesting was the inconsistency in the assessment of the bought essays, which ought to have led to questions about the legitimacy of the assessment. Outcomes for purchased essays were that “guaranteed 2.1” received marks between 40% and 75%, and the more expensive “first” essay received between 50% and 85%. There was no moderation to bring the results into some sort of line, but would external examiners who sample a small number of papers have mitigated this sort of range of marking? Perhaps some large-scale research on consistency of assessment, of what is assessed, when it is assessed and how it is assessed would be just as useful and more fundamental as the moral exhortations to students about cheating and its fairness.


The QAA advice’s includes front- loading information and guidance to students as part of the induction process. Good practice is to offer this guidance within the course, but one of the weaknesses of the UK sector compared to the US sector is the tokenism of induction. This is often treated as an administrative processing task – covering enrolment, housing, timetables, library and IT access. UK HE still largely fails practice to recognise that students are people going through one of the major transitions of their lives – a strange combination of bereavement and rebirth with the anxieties, anticipations, and excitements that brings. That transition is a profound moment in the lives of those who become students in universities and the idea that you could put all the essential requirements of being a student into a few days of induction is not psychologically realistic.

Some US institutions take more than a single term to embed academic disciplines and scholarly requirements – and many US institutions are without the UK’s “boarding school” model of leaving home with all the emotional baggage that brings. This cultural change does not of course apply to public school educated students who have been broken and then immured from emotional stress at an earlier stage of their development.

Course based academics do not like incursions into their teaching programmes and want to get assignments set within days of enrolment. The lack of integration between support services and course lecturers inhibits such a holistic approach which can only be overcome by senior management interventions. Support services (counselling, dyslexia, and teaching support) are given little credibility (or even awareness) by individual academics – until they encounter the value of such support themselves.

Should we be surprised?

If we were to be limited to the crude material conditions of tuition fees and debt on graduation, some poor assessment practices and worse feedback (see NSS scores identifying this as a major concerns of students), the anxiety of gaining employment, finding affordable housing, a career possibility, the dangers facing the UK economy, the spectre of racist populism across Europe, and all the other things we know face students… we should not be surprised that so many students are cheating. Perhaps we should be surprised that so few are.

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