14 Sep 2021

Five of eight NZ universities see rise in cheating in 2020

From Checkpoint, 5:28 pm on 14 September 2021

Correction: The original copy contained calculation errors with regards to percentage increases. The copy has now been corrected. Also earlier copy had incorrect names for the Tertiary Education Commission and Universities NZ. These have been corrected.

Figures released to Checkpoint under the Official Information Act show five out of eight universities had an increase in cheating last year.

Lecturers say the issue is far worse than figures show, as lockdowns disrupt valuable face to face teaching.

Generic Library / Students

Photo: RNZ / Richard Tindiller

This audio is not downloadable due to copyright restrictions.

University of Canterbury had a 258 percent increase in academic misconduct in 2020 compared to 2019. Lincoln University had a 104 percent increase, Waikato University had a 61 percent increase, Victoria University had a 21 percent increase and Massey - 10 percent.

In its OIA release, Lincoln University said: “Prior to 2019, instances of low-level academic misconduct were recorded by departments but not necessarily notified to the Proctors. The sharp increase in notifications from 2019 reflects the introduction of new systems of centralised reporting to the Proctors.”

University of Waikato senior law lecturer Dr Myra Williamson had been grappling with student cheating for years but said Covid-19 left them with a huge problem on their hands. 

"It was such a rush to the online space for obvious reasons, we had to go and do all of our assessment online, but we haven't really put in place the infrastructure, if you like, the learning infrastructure to be able to maintain academic integrity in that space."

She had taught both overseas and in New Zealand and said it was shocking how simple it was to cheat. She even tested out purchasing an essay herself.

"I mean it was extremely easy just to make a contact with a website and to tell them what I needed and when I needed it by and how much I was prepared to pay and what mark I wanted." 

The results were just the tip of the iceberg, Williamson said.

She hoped other options for examinations could be explored - like oral exams for law students. 

Her concerns were echoed by a mathematics and science staff member at Massey University who did not wish to be named. 

Since lockdown last year his students had been cheating using an online file sharing service, he said. 

"You pay a monthly fee. You actually submit the specific question that you want the answer to and then the contractor in India writes the answer for you immediately, like within 15 minutes of the question, and the answer is being posted publicly for all the other members of the website to see. So not just a student who posted the question, any other student in the class who looks for it."

That is backed up by research from the Imperial College of London which found a 200 percent increase in requests for help with exam-style questions since the Covid-19 pandemic started.  

While the cheating was always investigated, the system did not work for modern cheating, the Massey employee said. 

"But there needs to be an inquiry, you know a disciplinary inquiry, and then it's extremely time consuming and slow, sometimes it's difficult to tell difficult to get proof, so in that case the student would typically be let off."

He wanted to see more dialogue with students about the consequences for cheating and to explore things like browser monitors and cameras but admitted these posed privacy issues. 

But he wanted something done before the problem got worse.

"It could undermine the whole education system." The University of Auckland is remaining online for the rest of the year, but no-one was available to be interviewed. 

The Tertiary Education Commission and Universities NZ told RNZ they were not best placed to comment.