Facing up to international students who cheat

The Wall Street Journal raises the alarm: international students enrolled at United States universities typically cheat more frequently than their domestic counterparts. According to the newspaper, US public universities recorded about five cases of alleged cheating for every 100 foreign students, and only one for every 100 domestic students, in the 2014-15 academic year.

The Times of London revealed that almost 50,000 university students were caught cheating at United Kingdom universities in the period between 2012 and 2015. Students from overseas – from outside the European Union – are more than four times as likely to cheat, according to the newspaper.

In the same academic year, the Department of Immigration in Australia cancelled the visas of more than 9,000 international students over academic misconduct. Why does this happen, and what does academic misconduct mean?

Academic misconduct with the students’ involvement includes various types of cheating, such as attending classes or sitting for exams on another student’s behalf, plagiarism, as well as services, gifts, informal agreements or payments in exchange for admission, grades, advance copies of exams and tests, preferential treatment, graduation and sham degrees.

Why are international students more likely to cheat?

Many of these cheating students come from countries with endemic corruption.

One study conducted at several public universities in Russia – a country and an educational system with a high level of corruption – shows that the students’ acceptance of the use of various cheating techniques increases significantly over the course of their university studies: “using unauthorised materials during exams” increases by12%; “copying off during exams or tests” by 25%; “downloading term papers (or other papers) from the Internet” by 15%; “purchasing term papers (or other papers) from special agencies or from other students” by 12.5%; and “giving a professor fraudulent or misleading excuses for poor academic performance” by 11%.

The results of the same study suggest that advanced students are significantly more aware of bribes at universities than freshmen – the difference is 52%. Russian students often justify their activities by pointing out the necessity to learn a great deal of material by rote and to write a lot of papers for what they consider 'unnecessary' classes., an education website, has been monitoring diploma mills in China since 2013. Currently, the platform has more than 400 phoney colleges on its list. The fake universities often try to attract students with low gaokao (national entrance exam) scores or inexperienced young people from small villages and towns.

These colleges often choose names that sound almost identical to well-known existing Chinese universities, like, for example, the Beijing Institute of Civil Engineering and Architecture, which presents itself by using pictures from the 80-year-old Beijing University of Civil Engineering and Architecture, or the Beijing Tongji University of Medical Science, a bogus college that offers degrees for only CNY300 (about US$45), which was most likely inspired by the Tongji Medical College, a top medical school in China.

When these fake Chinese institutions are exposed, they often just change their domain names and continue to provide their 'educational' services. The New York Times discovered a company named Axact offering fake online degrees all around the world in 2015.

The company, with headquarters located in the Pakistani city of Karachi, used to make tens of millions of dollars in estimated revenue each year.

Differences in academic culture

Differences in academic culture might be an additional reason for why international students cheat. In many countries, students are expected to repeat information from their teachers without questioning and reflecting on it; all other opinions might be considered 'wrong'. Hence, some international students might experience challenges in integrating into Western 'academic freedom' and need some time to realise how to work.

Research papers in other countries and in other languages might be structured differently from papers written in the United States or the United Kingdom. Moreover, academic writing might not be a substantial part of the curriculum of a secondary school education in many countries. Insufficient command of the language of instruction might be a further reason for cheating.

What can universities do?

One longitudinal observation conducted between 2004 and 2014 among students at Australian universities shows that text-matching software and educational interventions focusing on raising awareness of academic integrity might be successful remedy tools.

However, this might cover only some types of cheating, which can be taught and detected, such as simply copying and pasting without attribution.

The German Academic Exchange Service or DAAD, in cooperation with the German Embassy in Beijing, established the Akademische Prüfstelle in 2001. This agency is responsible for validating all certificates earned in China and conducting interviews with interested students in a discipline they used to study in their home country. This double check, together with language tests, is often a requirement from overseas for Chinese students to enrol at German, Austrian, Belgian and Swiss universities.

In addition to various anti-plagiarism policies and procedures integrating the use of anti-plagiarism software programmes like Turnitin or Unplag, faculty should present their assignments and expectations more clearly to the students, stipulating their cultural and educational backgrounds.

This might be difficult to expect and demand from faculty, however: tenure-track faculty are under pressure to publish and teaching seems to be less important for promotion; non-tenure-track faculty are under pressure to extend their contracts; and the administration is not likely to lose international students, who contribute an important part of the university’s budget.

Moreover, not everyone is ready to talk about such misconduct openly because it might be perceived as racism.

These improper dependencies might have dramatic consequences: it may be possible for less qualified people, or people with falsified diplomas, to get positions of responsibility, where their incompetence might lead to dangerous mistakes involving human lives.

Universities should acknowledge this problem and allocate all necessary resources to mitigate academic misconduct involving students.

Elena Denisova-Schmidt is a lecturer at the University of St Gallen, Switzerland, and research fellow at the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College, US. E-mail: This article was first published in the current edition of International Higher Education.