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Michael Gorion, right, monitors students as they take exams at the University of Central Florida College of Business Testing Lab in Orlando in 2010. (Steve Johnson/The New York Times)
Michael Gorion, right, monitors students as they take exams at the University of Central Florida College of Business Testing Lab in Orlando in 2010. (Steve Johnson/The New York Times)

ETHICS

Cheating said to be on rise in North American B-schools Add to ...

When it comes to business students and cheating, it appears that everything from plagiarism to using crib notes during exams is in a bull market, says an expert in academic integrity.

Donald McCabe, a management and global business professor at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J., is leading a follow-up study of cheating by university business students that he expects will show even more academic dishonesty than was revealed in the first survey.

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The first study (Academic Dishonesty in Graduate Business Programs), surveyed more than 5,000 business students at 32 U.S. and Canadian colleges and universities between 2002 and 2004. It found that 56 per cent of the graduate business students admitted to some form of cheating, compared with 47 per cent of non-business students.

“Some say cheating has gone down slightly. Don’t believe it. Students are doing it more but they don’t consider it cheating. You don’t have to look that hard to find cheating,” Dr. McCabe says.

While the follow-up study won’t be complete until late 2014, Dr. McCabe says comments from students and personal observations point to an increase from the first survey.

Several factors are at play.

Over the years, Dr. McCabe, who joined Rutgers in 1988 after more than two decades working for large corporations, has witnessed diminished vigilance by professors. Cash-strapped schools can’t afford to spend a lot on increased monitoring of submitted work and exam behaviour. When a student is outed, he or she is ready to fight back, sometimes hiring lawyers. For professors, much work and time are required to build a case in a situation where often the student gets off lightly.

Feeding the fraud is a culture of collusion where students don’t report cheaters. There is also less respect for college authority and a cultural shift in attitude, where no one wants to get left behind in the race to a prestigious job and fatter paycheque, Dr. McCabe says.

Also greasing the graft is technology, with online material readily available for copying or people available to produce one-off essays for a fee.

But why is it that business students, both undergrads and MBAs, are getting top marks as cheaters?

“It’s the bottom line that matters. It’s not how you get there,” Dr. McCabe says. This has long been the credo of business success, and students who focus on profit may be taking that theory to heart in the classroom. Business schools are also hotbeds of ramped-up competition, which feeds the need to be first at all costs. And once business students become familiar with the corporate workplace, they are exposed to the “get it done at all costs” ethic, Dr. McCabe says.

He also suspects that students who are prone to cheating enter business schools at a higher rate than other faculties because of pre-existing goals, such as the desire to be wealthy. Students may also learn things in business school that lead them to adopt profit-driven attitudes.

Business students have long topped the list of academic cheaters. A 1964 U.S. study of 5,000 students at 99 schools found 66 per cent of business students reported at least one case of cheating. In second place, at 58 per cent, were engineering students. The average was 50 per cent.

In 1997, a survey of 16 schools done by Dr. McCabe found that 84 per cent of business students reported one or more incidents of serious cheating, compared with 72 per cent of engineering students and 66 per cent of remaining students.

Julia Christensen Hughes, dean at the University of Guelph’s College of Business and Economics, is working with Dr. McCabe on the 2014 follow-up study. Like her colleague, Dr. Hughes said that, “Anecdotally, my sense is that cheating has increased since 2006.”

In 2006, she and Dr. McCabe released Academic Misconduct within Higher Education in Canada, their joint examination of cheating at 11 Canadian postsecondary schools. Their study found that 53 per cent of undergraduates and 35 per cent of graduates said they were guilty of serious cheating in written work. Her follow-up work with Dr. McCabe involves several thousand students from 11 Canadian universities, in five provinces.

According to their 2006 paper, cheating flourishes because, “The perceived low risk of being caught or penalized may lead students to conclude that a positive cost-benefit exists.”

Dr. Hughes notes that there’s a big gap between the substantial number of students who cheat and the minuscule number who are found guilty by the schools. When she sees higher numbers of reported incidents of cheating at particular institutions, she’s pleased because it’s an indication that faculty are following their policies and sending a message that cheating is wrong.

Most institutions say 1 or 2 per cent of their students cheat, Dr. Hughes says. According to a CBC 2014 survey of Guelph’s 23,000 students in 2011-12, 298 were caught cheating, representing 1.3 per cent of students. Compare that to the University of British Columbia, where of its 48,000 students, just 36 were caught cheating, a mere 0.1 per cent.

The University of Victoria, with 20,000 students, didn’t take part in the CBC survey, but according to Saul Klein, dean of UVic’s Gustavson School of Business, about six UVic business students each year are disciplined for cheating, typically plagiarism or inappropriate collaboration.

Collaborative projects are common in business schools, where it can be a fine line as to who did what. A student may want to get individual credit for a group effort. “So, we require students to sign and acknowledge their work,” Dr. Klein says of UVic’s 800 business students. Recently, the school was dealing with a very high degree of “overlapping responses” in a collaborative business project, Dr. Klein says.

The approximately 3,000 students at Guelph’s business college get a clear message right at the start. “We want leaders for a sustainable world. We’re teaching students to have a social conscience and to follow ethical business practices,” Dr. Hughes said.

If Dr. McCabe had his way, universities would use honour codes to instil ethical behaviour. After exams or projects, students would pledge that they did not cheat – and if they witnessed classmates cheating, they would report them. “I believe in honour codes. It creates a culture in the university,” he says.

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