Cheating the system

With exams set to commence, Paul Fennessy looks at the issue of cheating and what UCD is doing to prevent its occurrenceWhy do students cheat? Every year, despite all the extensive anti-plagiarism documents, despite all the warnings from lecturers and despite the meticulous procedures put in place in the RDS and other examinations halls, people still cannot help but resort to the lowest common denominator in the form of cheating.There have been numerous incidents, both proven and unproven, of cheating in recent years. An example of this was a multiple choice exam last year in which UCD Commerce students who were sitting an exam prior to other students sitting the same exam on a different day photocopied their exam paper and gave it to other students before they had sat the paper. In addition, there have been recent reports in the Irish media alleging that a number of students illegally obtained first-class honours degrees by purchasing cheating devices online, in addition to using their iPhones to cheat during exams.What is often most disturbing about all these occurrences is the fact that oftentimes there are a considerable number of people who are aware that cheating has taken place and yet neglect to act on such blatantly dishonest and fraudulent behaviour. With this in mind, The University Observer asked a number of students around the campus for their thoughts on cheating and whether or not they would intervene if they were aware of its occurrence.On the subject of cheating, second-year General Nursing student Grace McGarry says she “wouldn’t risk it”. McGarry then adds that she would be willing to come forward and inform exam authorities if she ever witnessed cheating only “if I knew that I’d remain anonymous when reporting it”.McGarry’s view was synonymous with many of the students that The University Observer spoke to for this piece. While everyone interviewed agreed that cheating was highly unethical and that those who engage in it deserve to suffer the severe consequences which it generally leads to, there was still often an air of reluctance when it came to students actually taking steps to stop such behaviour occurring. This can be attributed to a group-think mentality whereby students indicated a feeling of relative guilt in reporting the misdemeanours of their peers.For example, David McNamara, a first-year Commerce and Chinese student, readily agrees that cheating is “unfair on the other students and it takes away from the work you’ve done, especially if they beat you”. However, when quizzed on whether he would ever take action if he spotted a student cheating, he gives a similar response to McGarry, saying: “I wouldn’t want to risk it on the chance that I was wrong and I’d feel guilty, especially if it was one of my own friends.”Moreover, another student who wishes to remain anonymous gives a similar response to the question. “I wouldn’t want to be responsible if they get thrown out of the course or if they don’t have enough money to pay for repeats.”McNamara and others make pertinent points and elicit feelings that, one suspects, are representative of a significant number of students’ views. Namely, most students presumably do not want to deal with the hassle which reporting someone for cheating would inevitably entail. They undoubtedly figure that given that the majority of students are honest, hard-working people who would never dream of such deception, then it hardly matters if a few bad eggs break the rules.Yet ultimately, one person cheating discredits the entire degree and particularly in this period of financial instability, a tarnished reputation is something which UCD and their students can ill afford to just accept with a shrug of the shoulder.A spokesperson for UCD outlined their thoughts on cheating and the extent of its prominence within this university.“We’re not prepared to give out specific figures mainly because it’s a university wide issue as opposed to a UCD-specific issue,” she says. “But there hasn’t been any change in the pattern over the last few years, so they’re not seeing any sudden spikes because of the proliferation of iPhones or mobile phones or things like that.”However, UCD authorities acknowledge that cheating is a problem that still exists and that they need to do everything in their power to minimise its occurrence. One of the measures about to be initiated, which UCD figureheads hope will help allay cheating, is the introduction of a €50 fine imposed on students who forget their student card.The spokesperson explains these new guidelines in detail: “The regulations, and particularly their enforcement and related exam hall procedures, are regularly reviewed and updated as deemed necessary and appropriate. The most recent review of enforcement of the regulations pointed to the need for improvements in dealing with students who turn up at the exam hall without their student ID card or breach the mobile device regulations.”While it is unfortunate that students who genuinely make the mistake of forgetting their cards will be duly punished, the University feels that this measure is necessary. One of the reasons for such a stance is that hypothetically speaking, a student could sit a paper for another student providing they use this excuse.Although the spokesperson notes, “where a student ID has not been presented, a range of alternative identification checks are conducted and recorded,” a simple memorisation of such details would allow the student to continue their dishonest endeavours. And if a student was so desperate that they were willing to cheat in their exam in the first place, it is doubtful whether they refrain from doing so in light of this newly-introduced fine.Moreover, the move to punish students for their forgetfulness, deliberate or otherwise, was strongly criticised by most of the students which The University Observer spoke to.“A €50 fine is ridiculous because not a lot of people would be able to splash that cash, especially with heightened fees, the recession and things like that,” says McNamara.Fiona Walsh, a third-year Arts student, agrees that the measure is unduly severe: “I think it’s stupid. You should be able to just fill out the form, or maybe if you forget it three times be punished, but I think it’s too much. I think there’s too much pressure on students to remember the kind of stuff we need to know, I think it’s too drastic.”Furthermore, a student who wishes to remain anonymous feels UCD were being overly cautious in implementing such strict procedures. “I don’t see what difference the student card makes,” she says. “You’re hardly going to go in and sit someone else’s exam.”Therefore, if students are unhappy with the student card system and if the effect it will have on preventing students cheating remains doubtful, then what can actually be done as a means towards effectively stamping out cheating? According to the UCD spokesperson, curbing this problem “is a mutual responsibility between staff and students who do not condone cheating of any kind to work together on this front”.Furthermore, the spokesperson added that “there is a responsibility on the examiners side to monitor patterns”. In other words, as awkward as it may be if they turn out to be wrong, a lecturer is perfectly within their rights to further investigate students who had been failing exams and who are suddenly attaining straight As.McGarry adds that it would be nigh on impossible to increase the efficiency of the current UCD system and seems simply resigned to the fact that cheating will always exist in some form. “I suppose they’re doing all they can do really. You can’t strip search people. You’re told to leave your phones out. You’d want to have some metal protector as well.”McNamara gives a similarly sober assessment in relation to cheating and its prominence both in UCD and in Irish society writ large. “To be honest I wouldn’t know much really, because I haven’t done any exams in UCD yet, but I believe they wouldn’t be that effective, because it happened in the Leaving Cert. There were guys and girls I know who were using flash cards, iPods [and] phones.”Ultimately, the UCD spokesperson believes the current system is satisfactory, but at the same time does not rule out making the system more rigorous in the future. “In terms of ID security checks, what would happen in relation to us is it would slow down the getting into the exam hall. While at the moment, if somebody doesn’t have an ID card they still get in, we reserve the right to change that if the problem ever got extreme.“If they feel something is happening around them, they should report it. Because if you just pretend something doesn’t exist, it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist. The invigilator is there for a reason.”