QA bodies note progress in fighting academic corruption

Early research findings on academic corruption suggest that accreditation and quality assurance bodies in some countries are having success in handling the problem, but questions about how to deal with the unwieldy issue remain a work in progress.

And while the topic is complex and multifaceted, research on student attitudes towards cheating offers some insights into how an emphasis on integrity might reverse the problem, which has long been the scourge of the higher education accreditation profession.

The moral dimension aside, cheating decreases academic engagement, which undermines the central value of a college degree.

“The credibility of quality assurance agencies is going to depend quite a lot on this topic,” says Sir John Daniel, a Canada-based higher education researcher. And, he added, the evidence suggests the problem has reached epidemic level. “If you don’t think there’s anything wrong in your university you just haven’t found it yet,” he said.

Daniel is leading an international effort by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation’s International Quality Group (CIQG) to fight the problem. Findings from two studies were discussed last week at the groups’ annual meetings in Washington.

Preliminary findings of a commissioned study

Preliminary findings of a study commissioned by CIQG offer promise that some accreditation and quality assurance bodies believe they are having success in wiping out academic corruption. Many of them work in concert with other organisations, “so there’s a lot of activity there”, says lead researcher Irene Glendinning, a faculty member in the Office of Teaching and Learning at Coventry University in the United Kingdom.

A few examples cited by Glendinning’s research team:
  • • Last year, quality assurance agencies in Australia and the United Kingdom created guidance notes for how institutions of higher education can address contract cheating, a form of academic dishonesty in which students hire others to complete their work.

  • • New Zealand has made contract cheating illegal – a move that “should be pursued by every country”, Glendinning said, if for no other reason than “it sends the right message” to students.

  • • Anti-corruption agencies, non-governmental organisations and ombudsmen are supporting the work of quality assurance bodies in Hong Kong as well as Africa, Lithuania, Slovenia, Kosovo and elsewhere.

  • • China is among countries that have developed or are looking into creating secure digital repositories to authenticate student qualifications. The repositories enable recipients to accept data that comes directly from the learner, reducing the potential for the transmission of fraudulent credentials.
The findings were based on surveys from 45 quality assurance bodies. More comprehensive findings, including case studies focusing on best practices, are expected to be released this summer, Glendinning said.

Research on cheating

Meanwhile, research on students who behave dishonestly calls attention to the nuanced nature of cheating, as well as the challenges in trying to prevent the problem, said Jason Stephens, an associate professor at the University of Auckland, New Zealand. In a nutshell, he said, most students acknowledge having cheated in some way in the last year, and about a third of students are engaging in certain behaviour even though they believe it to be morally wrong.

His study looked at the effects of a compulsory online academic integrity seminar on cheating. The goal was not simply to reduce academic dishonesty, but also to increase students’ knowledge and skills associated with greater moral awareness, judgment, commitment and action. Over four weeks, students engaged in online discussions focused on questions such as ‘What is moral? What is right? Why be good? And what kind of will and skills are needed?’

Results found only small decreases five years later in reporting certain behaviours such as copying homework or plagiarising a few sentences, leading Stephens to conclude that such instruction is both necessary and insufficient. His advice: “Take the long view – effective policies and cultural change take time and effort. Plan on assessing the new policies and procedures you implement and making adjustments.”

Jamil Salmi, a tertiary education expert, suggested that an exploration of innovative teaching and learning approaches might also contribute to the conversation on how to eliminate traditional enablers of student dishonesty. Exercises that emphasise team-based activities, for example, “would defeat the purpose [of dishonest behaviour] because it makes cheating irrelevant”.

That echoes the World Economic Forum’s The Future of Jobs report, which lists complex problem solving as employers’ most-desired skill. Other top skills include critical thinking, creativity, people management and coordinating with others.

On the broader issue of academic credentials fraud, the Groningen Declaration Network’s (GDN) digital data system, which aims to streamline and protect the secure transmission of academic records, has expanded its activity. Established in 2012, GDN’s initial phase of operation was seen as a way to crack down on fake credentials. Participating countries are now focused on its value to accreditation organisations, with the hope that its findings can support policy-making.

“Quality assurance is a big part of our discussion,” said Michael Reilly, executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, one of the first organisations to embrace GDN.