Every now and then there is an outburst of concern about the curse of plagiarism in higher education. The Department for Education has indicated it is considering cracking down by not only fining, but also handing out criminal records, to students submitting commercially produced essays as their own work.
The targets of this mini crusade are essay mill websites, which market “original” professionally produced essays that allow students to circumvent their university’s plagiarism detection system. These paid-for essays allow students to buy a degree.
But this is only a small part of the culture of cheating in higher education. A long time before the commercialisation of plagiarism, cheating was rife in the system. Back in 2004, when I was chief examiner for my department, I was shocked by the amount of plagiarised coursework brought to my attention. When I consulted colleagues at other universities it became evident that the problem was not confined to my department. On the basis of these discussions I estimated that in the social sciences, between 20% and 25% of assessed work contained unacknowledged reproduction of chunks of someone else’s work.
What I have found most disturbing is the failure of academia to explain its own contribution to the problem. Today, the finger of blame is pointed at well-off middle-class students who have the resources to purchase essays. More than a decade ago the same problem was explained away by suggesting that the increased cost of going to university had led undergraduates to look for short-cuts. Back then economic hardship, rather than rich kids, was identified as the source of the problem.
Academic discussions on plagiarism sometimes sought to deflect the problem by claiming that overseas students were disproportionately involved in copying. Some suggested they had come from different educational cultures where reproducing other people’s work was considered the norm.
Probably the most-often cited excuse used was the internet. The practice of copying and pasting that students adopted in school was used to explain its continuation in higher education.
The constant tendency to deflect the problem of cheating to causes external to university life is driven by the institutional imperative to minimise the significance of this practice. All universities have policies on this problem; most have made plagiarism detection software available to staff and the issue is under constant discussion. But this is a case of being seen to do something rather than confronting the problem – which is that plagiarism is not a technical issue but one that raises questions about the working of academic culture.
What I find most alarming is not that students cheat but that they don’t believe they have done anything wrong. They feel they are playing the system and are acting in accordance with instrumental values internalised in their schooling and higher education. Students who have been told that they are customers regard their relationship with academics as a commercial transaction rather than an intellectual relationship.
Customers look for a great bargain, not intellectual stimulation. For customers, what matters is not the buzz that comes from gaining insight into an intellectual problem but the final mark on an essay or exam. The university system conspires to encourage them to obsess about quantifiable outcomes rather than the journey of enlightenment provided by an academic education. For its part, the university, which is also graded on quantifiable outcomes, has every interest in instilling in students the calculating ethos that they live by.
Professional essay companies would lose business if universities educated students to embrace the values of scholarship and encouraged them to embark on a quest for knowledge. But if higher education continues to treat students according to a business model it is only a matter of time before plagiarism loses its stigma.