Frank Furedi

Professor of Sociology at University of Kent, and author of Politics of Fear, Where Have All the Intellectuals Gone?, Therapy Culture, Paranoid Parenting and Culture of Fear.

What's wrong with cheats
The cooption of parents as unpaid teachers is at the root of Britain's plagiarism epidemic.

Last week a survey of 1,022 undergraduates at 119 institutions indicated that cheating has become widespread in British universities. In a poll carried out by the Times Higher Education Supplement, one in six undergraduates admitted copying from friends' work. Sadly, most academics know only too well that plagiarism has become a widespread practice. Discussions with social-science colleagues - including chief examiners - in different universities suggest that 20%-25% of assessment work contains either wholesale or partial unacknowledged reproduction of someone else's work.

The really interesting story is not the disturbing extent of cheating but the increasing normalisation of it; it is treated as a learning problem. In universities one often hears the argument that some students simply lack the skills to understand what is meant by cheating. Consequently many institutions are devoting greater resources towards providing students with the "skills" necessary to avoid the problem. However, in reality undergraduates have a reasonably good grasp of what it means to cheat. The problem is that they are encouraged to regard it in a morally neutral way. That is why students caught cheating are far more likely to feel a sense of irritation at being caught out than to feel a sense of shame, humiliation or remorse.

Last week, a senior figure from Oxford University blamed schools for creating a culture of work "cobbled together from the internet", and the idea that cheating is being normalised is supported by figures published yesterday by the Qualifications and Assessment Authority: from 2004 to 2005 the number of candidates penalised for "malpractice" in A-level and GCSE exams and coursework rose by 27% to more than 4,500. Tragically this culture of cheating afflicts children from a very early age. Children as young as seven or eight arrive at school showing off polished projects that have benefited from more than a little help from parents.

But parents are not entirely to blame. From day one in primary school they are told that the performance of their children is intimately linked to how much support they get at home. In a desperate attempt to improve standards of education, parents' concern for their children is manipulated to draw them in as unpaid teachers. The outsourcing of education by schools encourages a dynamic where many parents become far too directly involved in producing their children's homework.

Surveys suggest that parents spend on average six or seven hours a week on homework duties. Official guidelines go through the motions of advising parents to hold back from doing homework for their children. But once it is seen as a joint enterprise by parent and child it is hard to draw the line between helping and cheating. Concern about copying material from the internet has led the education secretary, Ruth Kelly, to order a review of the use of coursework in GCSEs. But the real culprit is not the internet. The problem has its origins in the outsourcing of education that begins in year 1. Two-thirds of parents "help" children with the coursework part of GCSEs. And sadly it is often parents, not students, who are busy looking for information on Google or in the local library.

The internet turns plagiarism into child's play, but it does not possess the moral power to incite otherwise honest students to pass off other people's work as their own. Blaming the internet simply distracts attention from the responsibility that the system of education bears for cultivating a climate where cheating is not seen as a big deal.

Sadly universities tend to accommodate rather than challenge the culture of cheating. Cheating is now so rife on campuses that it is covertly accepted as part of the daily routine of British university life. When a case occurs, the response is to try to avoid taking potentially time-consuming action. Authorities preoccupied with increasing student numbers are reluctant to get involved in the messy business of appeals and litigation. While officially condemning cheating, universities tend to be hesitant about taking a robust stand in specific cases. Is it any surprise that for many students cheating ceases to have any serious moral significance?

If we genuinely want to do something about plagiarism then we must acknowledge the true scope of the problem. And the best place to start is with primary-school children. Teach them that it is only their own work that we value.

First published in the Guardian, 28 March 2006