Amid the falsity pandemic, how can US universities re-establish their integrity?

Amid the falsity pandemic, how can US universities re-establish their integrity?
LOS ANGELES, CA/USA - April 27, 2016: 2016 UCLA graduate on Bruin Bear on the University of California, Los Angeles, campus. UCLA has been named in an FBI investigation targeting 50 people as part of a bribery scheme to accept students with lower test scores into some of the leading US universities. Source: Shutterstock

In recent weeks, the integrity of higher education institutions has been critically undermined, with the university admissions scandal in the US compounding growing evidence that students cheating on assignments has become a widespread phenomenon.

While these issues have made headlines before, it seems the recent outcry demands that academic institutions tackle these problems head on once and for all. Failure to do so will weaken the very reputations these institutions rely on to attract students, professors and funding.

The admissions corruption scandals’ exposure of systematic soft-marking, cheating and widespread bribery has destroyed any remaining belief that the playing field for students applying to university is fair and impartial. It also raises serious questions regarding meritocracy and whether or not higher education institutions believe students should be given opportunities based on their talents and potential, rather than their family’s status and connections.

As the fallout from the admissions scandal continues, there are also indications that the ‘selectiveness’ of prestigious institutions has racist overtones, with the New York Times reporting that of 895 slots at New York’s most selective college, only seven were awarded to black students. These claims, if proved correct, confirm that the principles of the American Dream are no longer a reality in higher education – in the 21st century, it is race and wealth which determine who gains access to the country’s top institutions.

While university deans, professors and faculty are complicit in the admissions scandals, and have for too long turned a blind eye to institutional prejudices, these same individuals appear incensed and combative towards the growth of essay fraud which has become commonplace at their institutions.

Although these two scandals are not obviously connected, there’s a valid argument that these two areas of deception are linked. Students whose families’ finances have opened the doors to a university of their preference often find themselves on advanced programmes of study for which they lack the talent to succeed. With the pressure to maintain a respectable GPA, these students are unlikely to feel much remorse for going online to order an essay which will ensure they successfully pass each module of study.

Online essay mills which write assignments on demand, and at short notice, are as popular with local students as they are with international students.

Luke, a student at London University, admitted to The Times that he had used the services of Oxbridge Essays, one of the most infamous “ghostwriting” websites, at the cost of £150 on each occasion, for which he received a respectable 2-1 grade.

William “Rick” Singer leaves Boston Federal Court after being charged with racketeering conspiracy, money laundering conspiracy, conspiracy to defraud the United States, and obstruction of justice on March 12, 2019 in Boston, Massachusetts. Source: Cott EisenI/Getty Images North America/AFP

“It’s a great service. I must say I was very impressed,” was Luke’s verdict on the company he used to write his fraudulent assignments.

Essay cheating has become so commonplace that the topic was recently included in a British television drama (appropriately named Cheat) in which one of the main characters went online to buy essays in order to succeed at university.

International students, whose parents pay huge sums of money for them to study abroad, are often under massive pressure to return home with honours degrees. This added pressure can be enough to convince many of these students to contract a ghostwriter to complete some of their assignments.

Business professor David Weber from the University of Maryland recently stepped down from his teaching post after accusing all Chinese students of cheating.

During his rant against Chinese students, which was aired on a local radio show, he claimed, “All Chinese students cheat their way into the US and the University of Maryland…This is not your home, you all cheat in your home…You will have to go back home, and never come to the United States again.”

Mr Weber’s broad sweeping accusations were clearly inappropriate, but it has been argued that the US’s willingness to accept Chinese students (for financial benefits) has led to students being accepted onto programmes for which they aren’t prepared.

Prioritising students’ fees over their appropriability is unfair to students, lecturers and programme administrators, and is ultimately detrimental to the academic standards of the institutions in question.

Professor Philip Newton, Director of Learning and Teaching at Swansea University in Wales predicts that over that 30 million learners worldwide have employed ‘ghost writers’ to complete essays and reports.  The research centre Whole Ren Education has reported that 35 percent of expulsions of international students from China were linked to academic dishonesty.

Chris Havergal, Editor of Times Higher Education, has urged universities to be more proactive in combating cheating, explaining that, “The integrity of the qualifications offered by leading Western universities is central to their appeal to international students, so combating contract cheating should be a priority for institutions and policymakers.”

With educators, deans, politicians and business leaders concerned that academic falsity is a threat to the quality, and reputation of higher education, it’s high time universities tackled these two problems in tandem.

University leaders must put an end to the ‘flexibility’ of university entrance standards, and refuse to accept wealth and influence as grounds to admit underperforming students. University places must be administered to students according to their high school grades, talent and potential – not their social status or ethnicity.

As underperforming, wealthy students are denied entry to advanced university programmes, the calibre of students will better conform with each programme of study, meaning less students who are ‘out of their depth’ and less who will feel the need to buy essays to make up for the shortfall in their abilities.

Actress Felicity Huffman is seen inside the Edward R. Roybal Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse in Los Angeles, on March 12, 2019. Two Hollywood actresses, including Oscar-nominated ‘Desperate Housewives’ star Felicity Huffman, are among 50 people indicted in a nationwide university admissions scam, court records unsealed in Boston on March 12, 2019 showed. Source: David McNew/AFP

Of course, universities should not rely entirely on putting an end to cheating by simply adopting more sincere admission policies – after all, even the most talented student can get sidetracked by campus life. Investment and collaboration is need to improve the current software programmes that detect plagiarism and ghostwriting.

New software being developed by Turnitin aims to identify work completed by a ghostwriter. Their new software, Authorship Investigate, will “use a combination of machine learning algorithms and forensic linguistic best practices to detect major differences in students’ writing style between papers.”

It is hoped that once software such as Authorship Investigate can correctly identify work that has been written by ghostwriters and becomes widely available, this element of academic falsity will be eradicated, and the integrity of higher education institutions will be back on the right tracks.

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