Yet a recent University of Guelph study has discovered that more than half the student body in Canada is cheating its way through school. And there is no recall. There is not even a great sense of urgency around the problem. The value of a degree is being debased, and there is mounting evidence that a lack of integrity in the university system will have a far-reaching effect on our economy in the years to come.
The numbers on academic misconduct at both Canadian and American post-secondary institutions are startling. The Guelph report puts the percentage of Canadian students engaging in serious cheating on written work at 53 per cent. In the U.S., according to some studies, 70 per cent of students admit to cheating in one form or another.
Of all Canadian universities, perhaps McGill's policies are the most stringent. It instituted mandatory assigned or scrambled seating and differing test versions for all their final exams in 1990, largely to curb cheating on multiple-choice questions. All final-year multiple-choice exams are subsequently run through McGill's Exam Security Program, which analyzes wrong answers for telltale similarities. "The more identical wrong answers two or more exams have, the more it becomes suspect," says David Harpp, a McGill chemistry professor who helped pioneer the program. "McGill is actually being quite conservative in its parameters. We could probably catch more cheats, but we are only catching the real idiots." Despite the success of Harpp's method, he knows of no other university in Canada that has adopted it.
McGill has used turnitin.com, a Web-based essay authentication database effective in identifying cases of plagiarism, since 2004. Though use of such databases is widespread at Canadian universities, only McGill has written it into its policy. If suspected of cheating, a student must either have the paper checked against the database or choose another means of authentication, as some student groups had copyright-related complaints about the database. Smaller class sizes, where students have been shown to cheat less, as well as boned-up exam monitoring, are McGill's priorities. "The point isn't to catch people," says Morton Mendelson, deputy provost at McGill. "The point is to convince them that they'll be caught if they cheat."