Cheats trade in used ideas

28th November 2003 at 00:00
The universities confer, and frantically devise software to tackle the growth in plagiarism. Websites proliferate offering essays custom-built.

Numerous students have been caught for downloading essays - or at least paragraphs and learned footnotes - and one must assume that numerous others have done it, and not got caught.

Fine. Police it, crack down on it, preach against it. But perhaps we should also consider what causes it - apart from the internet itself, which is a mere tool.

What secret seismic shift in awareness, what colossal and lunatic misunderstanding of the whole educational process, makes anyone, however young and daffy, think that there is any point in doing this?

Why would a voluntary - and legally adult - student, who is getting into debt for a university education, waste effort combing the internet for a fake version? The obvious answer is that it gets the tick in the box which leads to a 2:1 and a notional "good job".

Idle little bunnies who once would have got drunk for three years and settled for a "Desmond or a Douglas " (2:2 or third) are now aware that there are a lot of graduates competing for work. But hell, if you are willing to con and cheat your way to a degree, why bother with university? Why not just fake a certificate, or buy one from a US mail order company?

And why, when you ask students why they did it, do they often reply that it was the pressure, the panic, the desperation to get an essay in? Why be so desperate? Tutors can't spank you, lecturers can't tell on you to your parents - you're an a adult volunteer in this slave-galley, you can walk away.

Why lose your integrity and fake it to please them? If you haven't actually learned anything, or discovered how to write an essay of your own, you're going to be pretty useless out in the working world anyway. Why mess about so desperately to achieve what will be a basically counterfeit degree?

I have been wandering around asking professionals, who said "modular courses encourage it" and "it's the deficit of proper tutoring in universities ".

But a schoolteacher offered the bleakest explanation. He said "They don't see it as wrong. I think it's A-level coursework". In coursework, he explained, the impression given is of a weirdly mercantile model: you must deliver a product, on time and in the correct format.

The student is put in the position of a supplier - say a car company - pledged to deliver a finished vehicle to the customer. If a car company finds that it is quicker and cheaper to buy in a ready-made engine and a set of headlights from abroad, that is what it does. The product, and the deal, are still valid.

In the same way the stressed A-level student may cobble together some internet material without first processing it through his or her brain, deliver it smartly bound up as coursework, and get a decent mark. This could be either because the plagiarism is undetected, or because it is approved of as proof of "research".

But of course, it is actually worth nothing. What the supplier - the student - does not fully realise is that the lump of coursework was never really important. It isn't a product in the marketplace; nobody actually wants it.

Spent coursework does not end up cherished in libraries. The real point of education is not what goes into your nicely-bound folder, but what goes into your dishevelled little head.

To carry this to the extreme absurdity, that pestilential kid who never finished the coursework and got a U might actually, just possibly, have learned more from listening and thinking about the subject and interrupting in class than a tidy-minded plagiarist who with lavish help from parent, teacher and Internet delivered a convincing-looking product.

If this culture has grown up in a school - and God help us, I would hope it does not grow up in many - it should not surprise anyone that a university student, asked for an essay and knowing that the essay counts towards a degree, casts around for somewhere to import that essay from.

It's modern management practice in a post-industrial society, innit? Downsizing of personnel effort, outsourcing of primary production, prompt delivery of customers' orders. And as one girl depressingly said, if you're reading English then every thought about Shakespeare and Milton has already been had by someone else, so why struggle to have a real response yourself? It's all there. Readymade. Just process it.

There may not be many of these students - yet - who entirely fail to understand that the final product of education is invisible: their own enhanced knowledge and a mind-full of new connections. But evenif there are just a few, it should bother us.

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