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Prof Eddie Bromhead: Institutionalised cheating devalues many a British degree


In yesterday’s blog, I dealt with what might be useless degrees by subject. In some fields, you will not get far without a 1st or 2:1, but in others, just getting through is enough. You also have to watch out: get a first from (say) a ‘New University’, and then work alongside some loser who could only manage a Third from Oxbridge, and he will forever be trying to justify that he went to a real University. The fact that he only attended 8 week terms, and got there by dint of determined parents, will not be obvious to him!

I think I will leave it to Rod Liddle to make the case against the many ‘isms’ for which students get extra time or other help, as sometimes it is justified.

You can, of course, make your degree effectively worthless in a variety of other ways. There was a time when if you were caught cheating, you would get slung out, but not always now.

Dreadful though it may seem, some students still turn up to an exam with a scrap of paper on which a few equations have been scribbled in tiny letters. My advice: do not bother. It will not help. Smoking less dope, so you can get up in the morning and attend lectures, is a far more effective way of passing exams.

Technology is a better aid to the cheater.

Perhaps the most egregious case of cheating I ever came across was of a dozen students who sat an exam in a difficult technical subject and produced word perfect and identical answers, exactly matching the examining lecturer’s model solution. For those not in the know, examinations in science and engineering in particular are matched with model answers showing how the calculations are done, and examinations in other subjects are matched with lists of points for which the student may get credit in an answer, e.g. counting how many references to Marx there are. The slightly inconvenient factor was that either due to his inefficiency or to other pressures on time, the lecturer in question had not even covered that part of the syllabus in lectures!

So how on earth could a student reliably get hold of a model solution? Well clearly, carelessness or corruption (some students are very much better off than clerks, and even some lecturers). Some staff are susceptible to sexual approaches from students, but I won’t go there, despite knowing of numerous cases. But the answer is simpler than that. Most universities now get lecturers to deliver their material via PowerPoint and each lecture theatre has a computer that staff can login to. Students get malicious software to load on those machines to intercept the lecturers’ keystrokes, and then they have access to anything on his or her part of the University network, including exam questions and solutions. Bingo.

Let’s suppose that a student is too fastidious to cheat for himself. Why bother anyway, when the University will cheat for you? The perennial problem of grade inflation applies to universities as well as everywhere else in education, and indeed, universities are just as praised for raising the percentage of Firsts as schools are for raising the number of A grades. It is not just a competition between universities, but there is competition between departments, and within a department, competition between staff. They do not always like each other, you know. And staff cheat. In my experience over many decades and also acting as an external examiner to six separate courses I have seen examples of this. In one case, the lecturer refused to submit marks in the range 36-39 (where 40 was the pass mark) because he said it just wasted his time in the exam board where he knew that these marginal students would be pushed to 40 anyway. It was an individual cheat, in the full knowledge that there was likely to be a corporate cheat.

I think we also have experience of lecturers and teachers who taught to the exam, and once you know who they are, it is extremely irritating to sit in an examination board with them where they pontificate on how superior their teaching is in comparison to yours.

“What?” you may ask, “Surely the pass mark should be more than 40?” Well, perhaps it should, but it does take account of the pressure on time faced by the student, the need to master many sub-disciplines simultaneously (although perhaps this isn’t so important now that students usually get time off between exams, so they aren’t morning and afternoon for a week, as they were a half-century ago). But do think, as you are boarding an aeroplane, getting in the car, or walking over a bridge, about who designed it! It also explains why so many politicians don’t seem to be all that bright!

Then again, after a range of cheating in different subjects the performance of an individual is considered holistically, and various procedures with fancy names like ‘compensation’ and ‘condonement’ are applied to push the feepayer student through. Condonement means accepting that they will not pass everything, and compensation means that if they did well somewhere they are allowed to do badly somewhere else. Not necessarily unfair, as most students aren’t brilliant everything, but really unfair when their better performances were the result of cheating. Nowadays, there are endless ‘resit’ examination possibilities, and long after the event I am still disgruntled that I had to produce a resit exam for a single student who flunked it, but he still got through because of a condonement regulation in the resit exam board.

That is what I call a worthless degree: you cheated, the lecturers cheated, and the system cheated. Oh, and now you pay for the privilege, the student groups are larger and the staff busier than in the past, the terms are shorter and the contact hours fewer. You’ve been robbed … the cheating wasn’t just for you, it’s against you too.

So what, you may ask, happened to the dozen students with the perfect answers to something they had not been taught? Well, the panel that sat in judgement decided to reject the claim that any one of them had cheated, on the grounds of ‘insufficient evidence’.

(Image: David Davies)

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Prof Eddie Bromhead
Eddie Bromhead is a former Professor of Geotechnical Engineering at Kingston University. Since retiring, he has continued to take part in professional and academic research activities, in the UK and abroad.

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