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by Ralph Jemmott
A report published in the Jamaica Gleaner has apparently disclosed the prevalence of cheating by students attending the three main campuses of the University of the West Indies at Mona, St. Augustine and Cave Hill.
While cheating in academia is not new, what appears to be novel, if the report is to be believed, is the scale to which it has reached. The report suggests that both lecturers and students feel that the culture of cheating is now more widespread and that it extends beyond the actual exams to essay presentations and other work. This should not be surprising. We live in a world of increasing moral turpitude where the culture suggests that it makes sense to get by at any cost. Academia is not immune to such impulses.
I once wrote of a student caught cheating in a test who admitted to cheating, but boldly asked me if I did not know that nowadays you have to do what you have to do “to get-by”. The late Methodist lay preacher John Workman once came to Harrison College to speak to the General Studies class.
He recalled the charitable mantra “Cast your bread upon the waters and one day it will return to you.”
After the address, a student said to him, “Sir, that sounds good, but the real world does not work that way.”’
Culture is everything and everything is culture.
By culture is meant the prevailing values and attitudes and sensibilities that govern social interaction, presumably for its betterment. Today the United States Constitution and American democracy are under threat largely because of the moral failings of one man and of a Republican Party that in its naked self- interest, refuses to stand up for what is right, what is true and what is of good report.
As Gladstone Holder used to say more values are caught than taught. If the wider society appears to promote moral negativity, young people will inculcate moral anomie from the informal and non-formal currents that are also part of what we call “education”. The Greeks used the term “paedia” to describe the non-formal currents that can educate young people to either ethical or unethical ends. Today the real issue with formal schooling in terms of its weak outcomes is the culture in which it has to function.
Another aspect of the learning culture is the fact that it has become inordinately utilitarian and materialistic. Schooling is hardly ever pursued for its own sake, for the joy of learning, for its intrinsic value in terms of improving the individual mind and the collective social capital of which morality is a fundamental part. Today much of schooling is about getting the credential and the monetary and status rewards it proffers. It is not surprising then that people cheat as the end justifies the means.
Some practices have crept into education and more specifically into systems of examination that lend to malfeasance and corruption. Perhaps the most pervasive is the trend toward coursework, done outside of the school and beyond direct supervision.
A senior Mona UWI lecturer once told me that he was not against coursework, but he sometimes wondered exactly whose course-work he was correcting. This has created all kinds of anomalies, some of which are mentioned in the report carried in the Jamaica Gleaner.
These include the “well organised underground market” where candidates get others to write their coursework essay and post-graduate theses for a fee. In some cases these consist of the wholesale writing of text and in other cases the partial script or substantial revision of texts that ultimately do not reflect the candidate’s knowledge and ability.
The result is too many counterfeit qualifications which do not reflect real scholastic achievement. One is amazed at the number of Reverend Doctors in our midst. At a funeral I was handed a personal card by a gentleman which suggested that the owner had two doctoral degrees. One was a PhD and the other a D.D. or Doctorate in Divinity. Did that mean that he had completed two doctoral theses?
Cheating in academia is not a new thing, nor is it exclusive to any one university. Sometime ago a friend in England sent me a newspaper article outlining various forms of malfeasance discovered in British universities. They ranged from impersonation where students used fake identifications to sit exams for others, to the use of sophisticated electronic devices in the actual exam room. Someone in Canada admitted that his wife had to complete an academic paper in two days. He sat and wrote it for her overnight. With a straight face he told me that, “she passed.”
If there is any truth in the internal report leaked to The Gleaner, the UWI should investigate and put an end to the practices it claims to have uncovered. The UWI, according to its Vice Chancellor now boast to be among the top toer of universities worldwide.
It should indicate the source of the study which confirms that “anomalies represent less than one percent of outcomes.” In my years at Mona, there might have been the usual suspicions of plagiarism, but one never heard reports of papers and theses on sale for a price. That would indeed be highly offensive, inflammatory and unprofessional.
Ralph Jemmott is a respected retired educator.