Universities battle a rising tide of cheating

17 August 2014 - 02:03 By Prega Goveneder
University of Johannesburg. File photo
University of Johannesburg. File photo
Image: Wikipedia commons

Crib notes on the inside of a T-shirt, on rulers or the back of calculators - university students are brazenly cheating in tests and exams.

At the universities of the Witwatersrand, Cape Town, Johannesburg, Stellenbosch, and North-West, as well as Unisa, among others, more than 1400 students have been found guilty of academic dishonesty, including plagiarism, in the past year.

Experts agree this figure is just the tip of the iceberg because many cheats are never caught .

Figures uncovered during a Sunday Times investigation of student cheating do not cover all the tertiary educational institutions in this country because only 10 of the 23 responded to a request for data.

Deputy Minister of Higher Education Mduduzi Manana said he was worried about cheating and that academics had also spoken out.

"We don't need half-baked graduates in our country. We need graduates who have acquired enough knowledge to take it forward," said Manana.

He echoed the sentiments of his boss, Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande, about the increasing incidence of qualifications fraud.

"We have said to our institutions that they must tighten all loose ends. Those who think they can get away with murder and cheat must be exposed," said Manana.

In response to widespread cheating, the University of South Africa (Unisa) barred 519 students from studying for at least three years for using "unauthorised material" during exams.

It permanently expelled 20 students for buying or selling exam papers.

Figures provided by other universities show that:

  • 535 students cheated or plagiarised at North-West University;
  • 153 did so at the University of Johannesburg;
  • 66 at the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University;
  • 35 at Stellenbosch University;
  • 31 at the University of the Witwatersrand;
  • 27 at the University of the Western Cape; and
  • 24 at the University of Cape Town.

The Tshwane University of Technology was among those afraid of having their image dented by releasing figures.

Spokeswoman Willa de Ruyter said in an e-mail meant for her colleagues, but which also reached the Sunday Times, that "... in the interest of preserving the university's reputation, we have decided to provide a generic response rather than responding to the specific questions".

North-West University, which has adopted a no-nonsense approach to plagiarism, slapped five postgraduate students with two-year bans, suspended for three years, for plagiarising their theses.

They were allowed to continue their research but were forced to change their topic.

A 21-year-old student studying for a commerce degree in communication management at the university was banned from campus for the rest of the year after she faked interviews with the Ekurhuleni municipality in Gauteng.

She was asked to produce content for an in-house magazine as part of a major assignment for her corporate journalism module, which required her to interview municipal officials.

Danelle Kamffer, a student judicial officer at the university's Potchefstroom campus, said the student "copied and pasted articles", pretending they were hers.

Kamffer said students caught cheating often complained of having enrolled for too many modules. "They said they had too little time to prepare for the exam or assignment. Many students who end up at disciplinary hearings were studying for a degree they were not interested in."

She said students were going to elaborate lengths to copy others' work during exams.

"One had written notes on the inside front of his white T-shirt. He would flip it over after the invigilator passed. It was by pure chance that the invigilator spotted him fidgeting with his shirt," she said.

At the University of the Western Cape, 18 students were barred from study for six months after forging signatures on time sheets intended to confirm that they had completed a specified number of clinical hours.

Luthando Tyhalibongo, the university's spokesman, said three cases of students purchasing fake medical certificates had been reported to the provincial health department.

The University of Cape Town's media liaison manager, Patricia Lucas, said that between September and July, students were convicted in 50 cases, including 13 cases of fraud and 24 of plagiarism.

Penalties included expulsion, suspension for up to two years, a term of community service, paying compensation for damages and writing a letter of apology to the complainant.

The University of Johannesburg said it focused on prevention and advocacy rather than conviction.

Wits professor Peter Cleaton-Jones, who investigated several cases of scientific misconduct against academics, was reluctant to comment on the extent of plagiarism at South African universities, saying it had not been "quantified".

"If you follow the international literature, you'll find that plagiarism is definitely on the increase because, with the internet and 'cut and paste' [word processing], people are able to just highlight a whole page and lift it."

govenderp@sundaytimes.co.za

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