Does the university system encourage dishonesty?

One of the biggest challenges for the Russian higher education system is to combat academic dishonesty among students. In 2014, almost half of the students at Russia’s most selective universities indicated that they cheated in exams. Furthermore, international comparative studies show that Russian students are more tolerant of academic dishonesty than students from other countries.

It is not clear, however, whether students have tolerant attitudes towards cheating before coming to university, in high school, or develop these attitudes over the course of their university studies.

Existing United States-based research shares a consensus that universities contribute to the progress in the students’ moral development: senior students tend to cheat less than freshmen. Researchers attribute this effect not only to maturation but also to specific college experiences that promote the values of academic integrity and honesty.

But does it work the same way in Russia? We will address this question using the data from two large-scale student surveys recently conducted in Russia.

The first is a survey of more than 2,200 undergraduate students within the annual Monitoring of Education Markets and Organizations Project (MEMO Survey) in 2014. The second is the nationally representative survey of more than 2,300 first-year and third-year engineering students conducted in 2015 as part of the Study of Undergraduate Performance (SUPER-test).

From bad to worse

In the MEMO Survey, students were asked two questions: if they had cheated during exams in the past academic year, and if they had plagiarised in their academic papers in the past academic year.

While nearly 30% of the students indicated that they had cheated during exams, there is a striking gap between first-year students (17% admitted to cheating) and fourth-year students (36% admitted to cheating). The gap is a bit smaller for plagiarism (24% in the first year and 34% in the fourth year).

A positive correlation between the year of study and both cheating and plagiarism is still significant, even if controlled for a number of individual and institutional characteristics.

The design of the MEMO Survey is not ideal to identify a change in dishonest student behaviour and attitudes since students from different majors and universities are surveyed in each year of study.

The SUPER-test data has a better design for this purpose – first-year and third-year students from the same departments were selected to participate in the study. They were asked indirect questions measuring their attitudes towards academic dishonesty (what the faculty member should do if a student is caught cheating or plagiarising).

And again, tolerance to academic dishonesty increases during college: 88% of third-year students demonstrate dishonest attitudes as compared with 82% of the first-year students. Both figures are high, so it seems that Russian students are going from bad to worse when it comes to academic dishonesty.

What is wrong with HE institutions?

The data from the two surveys show that Russian higher education institutions in fact implicitly encourage academic dishonesty among students. Students cheat more and develop tolerance towards academic dishonesty over the course of their studies.

We identify at least four factors at the institutional level of Russian higher education institutions that allegedly contribute to developing student academic dishonesty.

First, higher education institutions do not develop and enforce policies aimed at academic integrity. Honour codes or similar documents are virtually non-existent at Russian universities, with few exceptions. Students are largely unaware of what constitutes dishonest behaviour, especially when it comes to plagiarism. Faculty are not informed about the actions that they should take when they encounter student academic dishonesty and usually act very leniently.

Second, there are no incentives for faculty to combat cheating. Conversely, since university budgets depend on the number of enrolled students, university faculty are pressed by the institutional environment to tolerate cheating. Very often they are advised by administrators not to give students failing grades for academic dishonesty so that they can continue to be enrolled at the university.

Third, there are no incentives for honest students to help maintain academic integrity among their classmates by reporting cheating students. Russian students study in administratively assigned study groups – of 20-25 people – throughout the whole period of their education and attend all classes together. This leads to the development of a sense of belonging to the group and strengthens feelings of solidarity. Cheating is therefore regarded as a much less unethical action compared to whistleblowing or a refusal to help a fellow student during an exam.

Fourth, outdated teaching and grading methods contribute to the development of academic dishonesty. The learning process emphasises “the replication of authoritative knowledge”. Russian students spend a lot of time at lectures, taking notes, copying or taking pictures of PowerPoint slides.

Their major goal as learners is to memorise material and correctly reproduce it in exams in the way that their instructors expect from them. Therefore, it is not surprising that copying from crib sheets or from others during the exams or while preparing a term paper has become so widespread.

A reactive or proactive approach?

There is a wide range of actions that policy-makers and university administrators could undertake to prevent the increase of academic dishonesty among students.

The reactive approach is aimed at increasing the costs from cheating by enhancing monitoring and by making sanctions stricter and inevitable. Chinese policy-makers are moving progressively in this direction: cheating on the national exam (gaokao) is currently punished with a prison sentence.

The proactive approach aims to develop a culture of academic integrity and highlights the shared responsibility of students, faculty and university administrators to maintain it. This approach also seeks to make cheating more costly, but emphasises the educational component.

Decreasing the number of high-stakes exams and introducing courses on academic and research ethics as well as formative assessments may potentially produce long-term effects on student honesty at universities and beyond. It seems that Russian higher education needs a combination of these approaches to reverse the worrisome trend of increasing dishonesty among students.

The newly established Ministry of Science and Higher Education of Russia needs to set a goal of combatting academic dishonesty as one of its top priorities since dishonesty undermines investments in human capital.

Russian higher education is a top-down system; thus, universities need a strong signal from the ministry to prioritise this aspect of their work. Universities should be incentivised to develop policies and programmes against dishonesty, such as honour codes and research ethics courses, as well as stricter punishments for cheating and plagiarism and improved assessment practices.

Finally, universities should create support structures for faculty and students who report academic dishonesty. All these measures are the bare minimum that is required, considering the current state of academic honesty in Russian higher education.

Igor Chirikov is vice rector, leading research fellow of the Institute of Education, and academic supervisor of the Centre of Sociology of Higher Education at the Institute of Education, National Research University Higher School of Economics, Russia. Email: Evgeniia Shmeleva is junior research fellow at the Centre of Sociology of Higher Education, Institute of Education, National Research University Higher School of Economics, Russia. Email: This article was first published in the current edition of Higher Education in Russia and Beyond.