I recently had to undergo some routine but serious medical tests. I was understandably feeling a little anxious. The young nurse came into the room, dressed in a heavy radiation apron, and holding an ominous looking needle. She looked a little nervous herself and I wondered if she was a recent graduate or perhaps new on the job. I tried to breathe deeply and relax.
You see, my research team and I have just finished collecting data from over 15,000 Australian students and 1,200 staff to ascertain the extent of ‘contract cheating’ in higher education. Contract cheating is a broad umbrella term for when students outsource their work to a third party, whether that is a friend, family member, student or commercial provider. Our preliminary findings indicate that 6-10% of students engage in this behaviour, and more than one in four students admit to sharing assignments. In my heightened emotional state, I had the fleeting thought, ‘I really hope this nurse didn’t outsource her drug calculations test’. Some readers may recall the 2015 SBS Pens for Hire documentary which highlighted the public health risks of cheating by nursing students. As the nurse competently felt for my vein and injected my arm with radio-active material, I had to ignore my concerns and have faith that the person to whom I was entrusting my health (and life) was worthy of that faith.
I tell this story as just one reason why all higher education institutions need to take academic integrity seriously. When members of the public start to doubt the professionalism and competence of those to whom they are entrusting their health, the education of their children, their finances, their safety and in fact nearly every aspect of their lives, then something has gone seriously wrong with higher education – the institution which has long been responsible for preparing students for professional practice. We can see how these doubts have already crept into public discourse with everyday cynicism about ‘fake news’ and untrustworthy politicians.
Something has to change. Higher education institutions need to recognise that academic integrity matters. And if we agree that it matters, we need to demonstrate our commitment by ensuring that all students graduate with the core knowledge, skills and attributes required to act as members of their professions and as ethical citizens. Without a genuine commitment to academic integrity, and the concomitant resources to educate and train all members of the academic community on what this means in practice, the parchments that employers have traditionally relied upon to attest to a graduate’s competence, will no longer have any value. No-one will know whether a student has honestly met the learning outcomes or outsourced their learning to a third party. Employers and members of the public will regard all testamurs as nothing more than fancy, embossed pieces of paper which have been purchased like any other commodity.
We have an opportunity to stop the slide in public confidence in higher education. Epigeum’s forthcoming Academic Integrity online course is designed to assist higher education institutions to embed internationally recognised best practice at every stage of a student’s candidature, and provide comparable training to both teaching and administrative staff. Utilising the expertise of researchers, educators and practitioners from around the world, the Academic Integrity online course will offer a more nuanced and complete package of interactive resources than has previously been available. Higher education institutions can use the program immediately or adapt it to their own contexts. If we agree that academic integrity matters, it is time to commit resources to a whole-of-institution approach which puts academic integrity at the centre of everything we do.
Dr. Tracey Bretag is the lead advisor for Epigeum’s Academic Integrity online course collaboration. Find out more about this collaborative project by watching this recent interview with Tracey or register your interest here: