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Trust over tech: Confronting tertiary cheating

  • 01 December 2022
According to a Background Briefing report aired earlier this year, university students across the country are using so-called ‘study’ sites to buy essays and answers for online assessments. Australia’s academic integrity regulator has since blocked scores of sites, but there are still work-arounds; experts say the problem is likely worse than we realise, and almost impossible to solve. Then there is the threat of artificial intelligence. A story in The Guardian suggests algorithmic methods may already be used to generate entire essays.

One issue raised in the Background Briefing report is the difficulties faced by students who must work long hours to make ends meet, owing to debts they took on to study and a general lack of financial support. Students working full time don’t have sufficient time to study, can’t afford to fail and so in desperation (and at further cost) they pay to cheat.

Some in this cohort might view cheating as, if not a right, then a lesser wrong. I can imagine students feeling conflicted and justifying it as a way to level the playing field, please their parents, and, hopefully, avoid lifelong debt. For many, a university degree is seen as a necessary means to a prosperous end. And how, with a little less pressure — a little more support, a few more options — they might resist. 

But what about cases where there aren’t external pressures? What about students who are supported, who don’t feel forced, yet choose to cheat? The systemic problem might be alleviated if external pressure were as well, but I can’t think of any external measure that will alleviate the problem of those who simply want better marks without more effort and think the ends justifies the (all-too-easy) means.

External measures can be worked around — but a powerful internal measure remains. Philosopher and theologian Thomas Aquinas spoke of how conscience helps us to judge what we should and shouldn’t do; it can be used ‘to witness, to bind, or incite, and also to accuse, torment, or rebuke’. Of course, we don’t always heed it; we justify ourselves, we block it out. And the more ‘normal’ the transgression seems, the easier it is.

Our ability to override our conscience is one of the most compelling aspects of Emily St. John Mandel’s 2020 novel The Glass Hotel, which documents the rise and fall of an audacious Ponzi scheme. In a section entitled ‘the office chorus’, the