According to a Background Briefing report aired earlier this year, university students across the country are using so-called ‘study’ sites to buy essays and answers for online assessments. Australia’s academic integrity regulator has since blocked scores of sites, but there are still work-arounds; experts say the problem is likely worse than we realise, and almost impossible to solve. Then there is the threat of artificial intelligence. A story in The Guardian suggests algorithmic methods may already be used to generate entire essays.
One issue raised in the Background Briefing report is the difficulties faced by students who must work long hours to make ends meet, owing to debts they took on to study and a general lack of financial support. Students working full time don’t have sufficient time to study, can’t afford to fail and so in desperation (and at further cost) they pay to cheat.
Some in this cohort might view cheating as, if not a right, then a lesser wrong. I can imagine students feeling conflicted and justifying it as a way to level the playing field, please their parents, and, hopefully, avoid lifelong debt. For many, a university degree is seen as a necessary means to a prosperous end. And how, with a little less pressure — a little more support, a few more options — they might resist.
But what about cases where there aren’t external pressures? What about students who are supported, who don’t feel forced, yet choose to cheat? The systemic problem might be alleviated if external pressure were as well, but I can’t think of any external measure that will alleviate the problem of those who simply want better marks without more effort and think the ends justifies the (all-too-easy) means.
External measures can be worked around — but a powerful internal measure remains. Philosopher and theologian Thomas Aquinas spoke of how conscience helps us to judge what we should and shouldn’t do; it can be used ‘to witness, to bind, or incite, and also to accuse, torment, or rebuke’. Of course, we don’t always heed it; we justify ourselves, we block it out. And the more ‘normal’ the transgression seems, the easier it is.
Our ability to override our conscience is one of the most compelling aspects of Emily St. John Mandel’s 2020 novel The Glass Hotel, which documents the rise and fall of an audacious Ponzi scheme. In a section entitled ‘the office chorus’, the reader gains access to the inner voice of those involved. They note that when one of their number claimed, in court, ‘It’s possible to both know and not know something’, the state ‘tore him to pieces’. It’s no coincidence that Mandel has the employees involved, whose transgressions were enabled by a kind of collective self-deception, speak with one voice.
‘There will always be a way to break the rules and we will never make cheating impossible. But if we nourish the values that make it undesirable, we’ll be able to rely less on our systems and more on our students, less on technology, and more on trust.’
Guilt, confession, and repentance aren’t words we often use these days. This comes at a price. There’s value in reflecting on our thoughts and words and deeds; in making sure our consciences are clear and when they’re not, in speaking up. But our consciences will only rebuke us for that which we consider wrong.
In a recent UK survey of 900 university students, one in three thought cheating was either not morally wrong, or only mildly so. One in six admitted to cheating. Some may have regretted it, and it is likely others might have felt unapologetic, even proud.
Consumer culture teaches that it’s right to want to get ahead, incentivising self-centred behaviour instead of other-centred; striving to impress our neighbour rather than to love them, to care about the people we appear to be, instead of the people we are.
If students are to spurn cheating in an age when cheating is easier than ever, we need to reconsider what is being modelled and cultivate values, convictions, and consciences that will function beyond regulations and restrictions. This will likely make students less likely to cheat in the first place, more likely to confess if they do, and will make them less likely to sabotage future careers and relationships with lies. Employers retain staff that they can trust; solid friendship, happy marriage, relies on honesty.
There will always be a way to break the rules and we will never make cheating impossible. But if we nourish the values that make it undesirable, we’ll be able to rely less on our systems and more on our students, less on technology, and more on trust.
Emma Wilkins is a Tasmanian journalist and freelance writer, and a Fellow of the Centre for Public Christianity.
This article first appeared at Eureka Street.