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Friday lay day – troubles in Australian universities

Friday lay day – short blog – good – its going to be a very hot day here in Newcastle, NSW today. Today a brief reflection on the latest scandal/crisis to hit the Australian university sector. The Fairfax media this week published the results of their investigation into so-called Essay Mills – Universities in damage control after widespread cheating revealed. It appears that non-English speaking students in our universities have been purchasing tailor written essays from an organisation in Sydney and using them as assessable items to gain progress in their degree programs. What can be done about that?

The Sydney Morning Herald reported that:

NSW universities are in damage control following a Fairfax Media investigation that revealed hundreds of students across the state were engaging the services of an online essay writing business … the … online business called MyMaster, run out of Sydney’s Chinatown … provided more than 900 assignments to students from almost every university in NSW, turning over at least $160,000 in 2014.

The article produced an interactive graphic to document the payments made and the subjects per university that were involved.

It shouldn’t surprise you to learn that the major areas of cheating exposed (if the data is believable) are Business Studies, Accounting, Management, and Marketing. The Subjects involved included Business Management, Accounting, Business Analysis, Human Resource Management, Marketing, Strategic Management, Business Globalisation, Economics, International Business.

First, from my experience at several universities, the Business students are the most implicated in poor behaviour including cheating and stealing material from libraries (cutting pages out of books, journals; hiding books and journals in secret places in the library to prevent other students accesssing the material; stealing the material outright).

This is consistent with research findings that show that business and economics (those who study a mainstream neoclassical curriculum) have stretched ethics, to say the least.

Some examples are covered in this Wall Street Journal article (2010) – Secrets of the Economist’s Trade: First, Purchase a Piggy Bank– which covered some of this topic.

An academic study – Does economics make citizens corrupt? – found that “economics students are significantly more corrupt than others, which is due to self-selection rather than indoctrination. Moreover, our results vary with gender — male students of economics are most corrupt, male non-economists the least.”

This article from Psychology Today (October 22, 2013) – Does Studying Economics Breed Greed? – provides a good introduction to the research literature on the topic.

Second, universities have made it easier for students to access Essay Mills because there has been a bias against the traditional 3-hour written examination at the end of each course period (term/semester), which counts for the majority of the assessment and must be passed.

Student pressure has led to more so-called progressive assessment, where the student gets regular feedback and assessable items during the study period instead of facing a major formal written examination at the end.

Once the universities bowed to that pressure they opened the doors to students getting assessible items (take-homeexams, essays) for submission that they didn’t produce themselves.

The solution to the unscrupulous commercial essay mill businesses is simple. Take a finger print scan at the time of enrolment at the institution. The technology is simple now – even my iPhone has it.

Return to the system where a formal 3-hour written examination is compulsory in all subjects and upon entry to the examination hall students verify their identities via their fingerprint.

The written examination should count for at least 60 per cent (if not more) of the final assessment.

Other assessment might be an in-semester written test/quiz etc – similarly verified for identification.

That would stop the scams immediately.

Third, it is true as the press is reporting that Australian universities are under pressure to increase the number of foreign, full-fee paying students. The evidence is overwhelming that this cohort is less able in terms of English skills (written and oral) and staff have been under pressure to ignore that deficiency.

I recall being told at one university that as an economics examiner I was not there to exam the English expression. Failure rates would be much higher if we took into account the ability to actually write sensible economic analysis.

Why is this happening? Back to my main territory – fiscal austerity. The Federal government has been squeezing universities in Australia for funds and forcing them to generate more of their own funding.

Research groups like the one I direct have become small businesses and only exist if we can generate our own funds. Faculties also are under constant funding pressure and foreign students ease the pain – well one dimension of the pain. The on-going scandals associated with plagiarism and outright essay substitution are evidence that other dimensions of pain have increased.

Fourth, a reliable insider at Fairfax who I deal with regularly (weekly usually) on matters told me this morning that Fairfax has not released the data about essay mills to the universities, which would probably allow the institutions to identify the alleged cheats and get them out of the system.

That tells you a lot about the values of the Fairfax press. They preach a lot about Universities allowing and overlooking cheating and how our education system is under attack as a consequence but then refuse to give the institutions the material that would help them sort out the cheats.

And to music

Tomorrow my band is not playing and so we got some tickets to see the Rolling Stones, who just happen to be playing up in the Hunter Valley (near Newcastle). So I will be getting my ya yas out for that.

To warm up for tomorrow (even though today is going to be 39 degrees Celsius) I thought this little snippet would suffice.

Its old Stones from their 1965 – Out of Our Heads – album – their third release. It was written by Roosevelt Jamison.

I have been playing the original record in my office this morning – bit scratchy and old but magic.

And while we are at it – the melodic guitar of Cry to Me from the same album and written by the incomparable Solomon Burke in 1962.

Saturday Quiz

The Saturday Quiz will be back again tomorrow. It will be of an appropriate order of difficulty (-:

That is enough for today!

(c) Copyright 2014 William Mitchell. All Rights Reserved.

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    This Post Has 4 Comments
    1. Bill, It seems to me to be worthy of note that the subjects that have been “compromised” are what could be characterized as Thatcherized subjects/fields. It would appear that what could be called “neoclassicization” leads ineluctably to corruption. Something about this paradigm, other than its empirical vacuity and its denial of the relevance of community relationships and conceptions, seems to be deeply destructive.

    2. Another issue where I used to teach was that the business disciplines expected fairly standard answers. I taught IT management in an IT school and I encouraged creativity and opinion. This made copying much more difficult – although one student did submit a copy of one of my own papers as an assignment!! The business faculty discouraged creativity in undergraduates, so even non-plagiarised effeorts looked pretty similar.

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