The plagiarist and the cheat – they are everywhere. And why?

In recent weeks, I have been giving some thought to the problem of plagiarism and cheating at all levels of education, and some consideration as to why it is they have come to be more accepted than they used to be. I recognize that the opportunities have grown with the introduction of the internet. However, I’m pretty convinced that greater opportunity alone does not explain the whole thing away. I have a theory that once targets are set for pupils, or teachers, or indeed anybody, then you immediately find people working in ways that will ensure those targets are reached by the shortest route. Or you’ll find people working terribly hard to show that those targets have been reached.

I noticed that Frank Furedi professor of sociology at the University of Kent, writing about plagiarism in the education section for today’s edition of The Guardian praises the recent the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority report, authored by Professor Jean Underwood of Nottingham, Trent University, for acknowledging that plagiarism is more prevalent than we usually think:
Too often, plagiarism in higher education is treated in isolation from practices to which students are exposed throughout their schooling. Many students have learned that copying other people’s work and presenting it as their own is OK. One of the merits of the report published last month by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority is that it considers this problem as one that afflicts all levels of education. It notes that cheating is more prevalent among school students than undergraduates.…………………

Professor Furedi goes on to explain why he thinks plagiarism has become so widespread.

Plagiarism, once considered by generations of university students as something akin to a sin, is increasingly experienced as morally neutral. Undergraduates caught cheating are more likely to feel a sense of irritation at being “hassled” than to feel shame or remorse. And it really is not entirely their fault. In primary schools, children often hand in projects that have benefited from more than a little help from parents. Coursework for GCSEs is frequently a joint enterprise between parent and child. Teachers whose lives are dominated by league tables have little incentive to probe pupils about the origins of their coursework. Nor are universities likely to practise a “virtues approach”. University authorities are far too preoccupied with juggling resources and managing increasing student numbers.

At the end of the piece he hits upon what seems to me to be the nub of the problem.

The normalisation of cheating in education is principally a cultural and moral problem. A narrow focus on targets has fostered a climate in which cheating is perceived by a substantial minority of students as morally neutral (my italics). It is a system that is ill-suited to promoting virtues. Yes, we need a “virtues” approach but it will take a long time to put right the mess we have created. 

In fact, I would say from experience, this narrow focus is not just encouraging cheating in the schools, colleges and universities, it is encouraging cheating in industry, business, the public and private services, and indeed in every place that you look. 

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P.S. You only have to read Simon Caulkin’s column in The Observer of Sunday the 7th of January 2007 see what effect  trying meet targets has on the running and management of business.

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