Posted by: scottishboomerang | September 6, 2008

Ticket to take you for a ride?: Academia should blame itself for the rise in student plagerism.

Engineers, Technicians and tradesmen in the UK have a word for the endless and expensive credentials they need to ordinarily do their jobs. Things like Health and Safety certificates, and so forth. The government and academia likes to call these compulsory courses “continuing professional development” and “vocational qualifications”.  In industrial Britain, they are given a more honest colloquial title. They care called “tickets”. The name alone suggests both expense, and lack of progression if you don’t have one.

Next week sees the start of my graduate diploma in law (GDL), the law conversion course in English law without which I cannot become a solicitor. The Boomerang does things backwards, I went to Korea and got a legal masters in International Law before I did this, and I am already a legal rep for LovenJustice Ltd.  So the GDL – to use a trade term – is just a one “ticket” in a series of expensive tickets I need to be a solicitor or a barrister in the UK.

The GDL – which leads to the Common Professional Examination – is the ticket I am doing off my own bat.  And I am doing it entirely by online distance learning over one year, which, on top of my job as a legal rep will be a challenge.  Distance because the suffolk town that is now my home,  though an hour from London, is not really “an hour” – it’s more like “£30”- and also because I need the flexibility for my work,  which has all the long hours associated with solicitor’s work, but without the money.

The jury is still out as to whether it was the right decision to turn down the College of Law and go with them: their attitude so far reflects the money-grubbing culture that is pervasive in the South of England, but also the supreme sence of entitlement that goes along the lines of “you-should-be-positively-greatful-we-have-allowed-you-to-give-us-thousands-of-pounds-of your-money” – an attitude I have always found difficulty with.

In the days before the industrialisation of academia – before Thatcher’s policies turned our univerisites and colleges from centres of culture and learning into souless degree factories, this attitute was much less common, and as consequence, students saw themselves as students, not as consumers.  Consumers, though, we have become: not necessarily by choice, but by necessity, and that involves calling ones instution into question when they are not providing their advertised services. This increasing industrialization fueled by the current mania for credentials has turned the pursuit of higher learning from an intellectual pursuit into a purely economic one, the degree has turned into the”ticket”.

This cultural shift has seen the rise of the Student-As-Consumer. There are some students who think because they have paid the money at one end they should come out the other end with a degree, even if they are not very good at their chosen subject and did not work very hard during their course (or, in many cases, were too busy working to get money to survive).

The Universities have encouraged this by lowering the academic standards (and in the case of the foriegn students they fleece, the English standards) to get the students through the door while providing the barest minimum of academic support in return. Students are not getting the support the need, but many struggling students do not fit the “lazy” stereotype. Students are pressured, they are busy, they are working to make ends meet, and they have one shot at their degree, which will inevitably saddle them with thousands of pounds worth of debt. The lecturers and tutors – too few, of course, for the individual guidance and attention many students need at the start of their academic careers, are under pressure, and so get very lazy when setting coursework questions.

Enter the internet, and its not difficult to see how tempting it is for a struggling student to buy a custom written essay – all original work, perfectly referenced and the grief taken out. Its not difficult to see how their parents, watching their offspring struggle as they never had to struggle when they were students, to “help them out” by buying them a custom essay.  Traditional plagiarism was not difficult to spot.  Plagairism in the modern era is a multi-million pound high tech industry, and one step ahead of the over-stretched higher education sector. In spite of Academia’s protestations to the contrary, we know that many students who do this will never get caught.  Why? Because university resources for marking, assessment and feedback are already stretched too thin.

How can “providers”  spot plagerism of coursework when they don’t have the resources to offer student proper tuition and academic support in the first place? When, frankly, the universities are too lazy to set tasks of sufficient complexity and originality in the first place?  Or offer guidance and feedback prior to submission of coursework? Or, as is becoming increasingly apparent, where the tutors themselves are confused about what plagiarism is, and what it is not?

Which brings me to my current situation.  An essay question was set by my GDL “provider” – at this stage I am hesitating to use the word “university” or even “institution”, the due date of which conflicts with some professional exams I have to sit for my job.  The essay question seems simple enough – a discussion of the role of the Judiciary in the Common Law –  but I need to “front-load” it and wrote it before the start of the course so I would have time to prepare for the other ticket (without which I cannot continue in my job).

I wrote the first draft of the essay, and then submitted it to my course tutor, explaining why I have to submit the blessed thing early, asking him to look over it and suggest areas for improvement prior to the final submission.  Back comes an email from my tutor which reads – and here I am quoting directly –

Hello [Boomerang],

The introductory assignment is mean to be all your own work.

Well, I see a lot of stuff in my work which could win the WTF Award of the Week, but that one really took the biscuit. Here is my tutor – whose salary my (borrowed) money is paying, and who is supposed to be overseeing part of the developing of my legal career –  telling me that receiving guidance and feedback on drafts of coursework was a form of plagiarism.  He also treated me  – a seasoned academic and who has taught at tertiary levels – like a GSCE pupil who had asked the teacher to do their homework for them.  Actually, strike that. Teachers of GSCE and A-level law have considerably more respect for their students.

So now, I am, alas, primarily a consumer rather than a student. The GDL is just a ticket without which I cannot get on the train which will take me to my ultimate destination of being a solicitor.  I am not, though, one of those students who expects to pass  without working for it – however, if I apply my expensively educated brain to the task of gaining this qualification, and then fail because my “provider” isn’t actually providing the service, then thats another thing entirely.

The assertion that providing feedback and guidance (which I always understood to be the work of a university tutor) is plagiarism is either a deliberate attempt to fob me off to avoid doing the work of a university teacher, or woeful ignorance about what plagiarism is, and what it is not.  To be honest, I’m pushed to decide which is worse. I sat at the computer staring at my tutor’s email for a full five minutes with my mouth open.  I then made a mental note to blog it at the first opportunity. Complaining to the Provider will not help. Bad press – even if names are changed or omitted in the private interest – is perhaps the only negotiating tool we have.

Today I started polishing the draft which I got no feedback on.  While googling the rules of statutory interpretation I came across a site offering to do the essay for me and guaranteeing a 2:1.  Clearly inviting the desperate student to engage in academic fraud. It also offered another service of offering academic guidance on course work you had written yourself.  There is nothing academicaly dishonest about using that particular service. In fact, it was offering to do what ones tutor SHOULD be doing. This site was offering students exactly in my position a change to start down the Wide ‘n’ Easy road to Academic Hell. I wonder how many academically abandoned students have been pulled in like that?

I am confident my essay will pass as it is. (it had better, given that I actively sought, and was refused guidance pre-submission). But let’s say I wasn’t that confident? The GDL has put me in further debt by £5,000. I have one shot at it. I can’t afford to fail. I have a lot to lose, really.   And once through the door, having purchased a legitimate service, how much easier would it be just to make that extra click for an illegitimate one?

I consider myself to be a scholar and an intellectual, and possibly one of the last people in this country to have had a truly Socratic education.  I love learning, and believe that aside from the material benefits a good education can bring, that learning enriches your life in many intangible ways. The Degree Factory attitude has always depressed me, and struck me as ultimately counter-productive.

The current trends of high-tech plagiarism is a symptom, not the cause,  of the compromise in intellectual and spiritual aims of higher education: and students are not the ones to blame for it.  If we do not consider learning (and teaching, for that matter) to have some intrinsic benefit to our society, if your students are nothing but cash cows to milk, then whether their  minds, tastes or moral character are developed along the way is neither here nor there.  We are becoming one of the most credentialised societies in the world, but also intellectually impoverished, and completely amoral. That is manifesting itself in all sorts of unpleasant ways, not least in the rise in violence and dishonesty that we see. I am not an old lady to see the moral shift in our society in the last two decades (and I am only 30).

We don’t need no education. All we need are the tickets so we, or our employers, can tick boxes on a form. And since it does not matter much to Academia, or to those who set higher education policy, why should it matter to students how those tickets are procured?


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