A few months ago I came across a disturbing leaflet at my university campus that promised completed assignments with a fee of 50 euro per page. It assured to erase the stress of students having to spend time on homework, as the ghostwriters were there to help them deal with the ‘ordeal’.
I stared at the leaflet in utter disbelief and immediately threw it in the bin. Contract cheating is a multi-million dollar industry outsourcing homework, assignments or other forms of assessment to third parties to wholly or partially fulfil the requirements of a degree. Its very essence is destructive as it serves as an obstruction to the development of the next generation of professionals.
Individuals who engage in contract cheating objectify homework as a product that can be purchased for a fee to receive a grade, which the book Life Beyond Grades: Designing College to Promote Intrinsic Motivation defines as “gatekeepers for one’s culture and occupational future”. While grades do not capture the learning process and cannot be a comprehensive indicator of an individual’s intellectual ability, they are undoubtedly essential for an individual to acquire a degree – a ‘cultural capital’ that opens a plethora of opportunities. Cultural capital is a concept pioneered by Pierre Bourdieu which refers to the acquisition of possessions that enhance an individual’s standing in society. It is reflected through one’s material possessions such as the educational qualification one has, or the job one acquires. Accumulation of cultural capital also aids the individual towards upward social mobility. The more cultural capital one acquires, the higher is one’s potential to rise the hierarchy of the social classes.
In a world driven by materialism, where material possessions such as cars, clothing and phones symbolically represent class hierarchies, cheating becomes an essential means to acquire upward class mobility, which is, however, accessible only to those with economic resources. According to Tracey Bretag, students cheat due to deadline pressure, and lack of interaction with the faculty. However, the hefty monetary price of online written assessments also reflects the wealth disparity between rich and poor students. Poor students plagiarise and get caught in Turnitin; wealthy students purchase papers online that bypass the software screening. The cheating disparity signifies that contract cheating among students is a class issue, where wealthy students occasionally are detected and serve a lenient penalty. Numerous studies show that thousands of students in Canada, Australia, UK and in the US are engaged in this abhorrent practice reflecting the magnitude of the problem in higher education.
All students enrol at universities to learn, to develop their intellectual capability; cheating is not their primary objective. Nevertheless, universities throughout the world invest primarily in research, and few resources are allocated to teaching. The problem, therefore, lies with the institutional design of universities, as Bretag rightly points out that "contract cheating is a symptom, not a problem".
Promotions and rewards in the academy are based on research excellence, not on quality teaching, and this is the reason students’ frustrations remain even at the Ivy Leagues, the Russel Group or at G8. However, it also needs to be taken into account that academics are burdened with a hefty workload: teaching, supervision, publishing research, flying to conferences, administrative responsibilities, networking, etc. Besides, academia has a ‘publish or perish’ culture, where the system is designed to reward academics who produce research papers that have little practical relevance. These academic papers that no one reads except for students or colleagues help in building the academic’s resume and the university’s reputation. It seems that the purpose of modern universities is to produce complex academic pieces that only serve to boost the institution’s international ranking. In this system, scholars who love to focus on teaching are harshly penalised.
The current focus of universities in the US, UK or in Australia is to enrol more, ‘degree-seeking customers’ (read: students) as they fatten the universities’ bank accounts. The system views students as customers, who are at the university to acquire a degree. The market-oriented education structure where knowledge is exchanged for money is detrimental to fostering a sound learning environment, as financial concerns make it difficult to produce good quality work. Higher education driven by a capitalistic mindset has led to big class sizes with over a hundred students crammed into a lecture hall. Classes should be smaller in size, and ideally should be restricted to between 20 and 30 students. In the case of large class sizes, students should be categorised into small tutorial groups headed by different tutors.
Alongside impactful research, universities should also have quality teaching in their agenda. Producing quality graduates is an asset to the academic, as well as to the university. Universities can also adopt a pay scale that rewards teaching, such as provide salary increments based on the staff’s teaching load. Also, a better pay scale and a promotion structure should be set in place for teaching assistants and adjuncts that motivate them to teach. Training sessions for academics mostly engaged in teaching should also be organised. Teaching assistants and adjuncts should also be entitled to research leave since self-study will not only make them a better researcher, but also a better educator.
Learning is a journey that takes time, dedication as well as intrinsic motivation; therefore, universities should also foster a flexible learning environment providing students with the opportunity to negotiate deadlines with their instructors, an approach that German universities and perhaps other European universities follow. Learning is best attained when there is quality teaching, no deadline pressure, or tuition fees to worry about. Perhaps universities in other countries can look into the German model of higher education, where flexibility and relaxed learning environment makes students fall in love with learning.
Namia Akhtar is a postgraduate student currently writing her thesis at the political science department of the South Asia Institute at Heidelberg University, Germany.
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