Universities Keep Quiet on Academic Fraud

Most Canadian universities have chosen to remain silent on the issue of rampant academic FRAUD on their campuses, despite increasing alarm among students, parents, professors and employers. Two weeks ago, Maclean's published a cover story examining the rising incidence of cheating among students at Canadian universities, and outlining the potential consequences of this apparent epidemic: the devaluation of a degree, the loss of public trust in professionals and the economic cost to companies and society. Since then, Maclean's has received letters from various stakeholders calling on universities to reverse this trend. Most universities, however, have been mute.

Maclean's contacted the offices of presidents and principals at several of Canada's leading research-intensive schools, including the universities of Toronto, British Columbia, Alberta, McGill and Dalhousie. None of these institutions chose to speak with Maclean's about the occurrence of cheating among students or their approaches to dealing with academic misconduct. Iain Murray, a UNIVERSITY of Guelph professor, suggests one possible explanation: "We don't want to wash our dirty linen in public."

Three universities - Calgary, McMaster and Queen's - did decide to comment. Generally, senior academic officers at those institutions agree that cheating is a problem with which schools must contend. "If half of [students] even once do something that contravenes our academic integrity policies, then it's an issue that needs to be dealt with," says Alan Harrison, provost at the University of Calgary. "My view is that it starts with the senior academic officers at the university, which means that it really starts at my door."

But these schools question the prevalence of misconduct among their own students, and argue that they are not solely to blame for the rise in cheating. "It's very concerning [to think] that universities alone are the place where [cheating] is fostered and will be cured," says Karen Hitchcock, principal of Queen's University in Kingston, Ont.

Instead, universities point elsewhere. Governments, for example, may be partly to blame because funding cuts to public institutions have escalated student-to-faculty ratios, creating large class sizes, which make cheating more difficult to catch. "The inability of professors to spend individual time with students is largely a function of funding shortfalls," says Peter George, president of McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont. Professors themselves may be partly at fault for failing to report suspected cheaters. Parents, as well as primary and high schools, may also be responsible for not establishing a strong sense of academic honesty in young people. "Students come to university with a certain set of values that have been instilled in them over the years," says Hitchcock, adding that students often lack an understanding of what counts as cheating. The Internet also facilitates academic misconduct, they say. And mounting pressure and competition for good grades and jobs compel students to cheat. "That's not a university's problem," Hitchcock says. "That's a university's reality."

To combat fraud, McMaster, Calgary and Queen's point to their academic integrity offices, and efforts to teach students about what constitutes cheating and its consequences. McMaster, which this week will review its annual academic integrity report at a meeting of the university senate, says that increased vigilance has resulted in more reported cases - 362 violations last year from 261 a year earlier. But, as University of Toronto ethics professor Joseph Heath notes, "Universities are not doing enough."

Hitchcock agrees. "Universities have a responsibility like any other group in society to address [cheating] frankly, openly and honestly," she says. "Constantly, a university has to look at the way it teaches, the kind of environment it creates, the expectations it places on students." George adds, "This goes to the root of integrity and trust in our whole society," and says that universities are facing the same sort of scrutiny and accountability standards that corporations and government endure. "I would be devastated to think that some day a credential from any of our universities would be subject to some kind of doubt because of an epidemic of cheating that went unchecked."

Just before press time this week, Claire M. Morris, president of the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada, which represents post-secondary schools across the country, sent a letter to Maclean's questioning the seriousness of the problem. "On behalf of Canadian universities" the association claims that evidence of fraud among students is inconclusive, and that not all types of cheating are equally serious.

Maclean's February 26, 2007