Academic Cheating in the UAE: Why Does It Happen?

Academic Cheating in the UAE: Why Does It Happen?
By James Mullan
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The recent report of academic honesty in a UK-branch university in Dubai raises some important issues. The report suggests that prevalence of academic dishonesty among undergraduate students is caused by low entry requirements.

This is an interesting take on the issue of academic honesty. Academic dishonesty, cheating, plagiarism and collusion are problems that have plagued universities for a long time. The expanding role that the internet and the World Wide Web play in our daily lives means that students have access to a plethora of resources and materials. With increasing student dependence on online resources, plagiarism has become the buzz factor in academic communities. Universities have scrambled to address the issue by handing out adding policies on academic honesty in the student handbook. Students are expected to read and understand these policies but when students are beginning university education, reading and understanding university policies are not top priority. In addition, policy language that contains convoluted definitions and descriptions of penalties can discourage a student from actually reading the policy.

Why do students plagiarise? Extensive research has been done to address this question especially in western universities.  Use of plagiarism detection software like Turnitin has also helped institutions identify the types and plagiarism that are common among students. Many studies have come up with a range of reasons and causes. Much of the blame has been placed on students’ weak English language skills, in particular, reading and writing skills. However, despite extensive policies and procedures on academic integrity, it is actually very hard to prove deliberate plagiarism on a student’s part.

What many universities and academicians have perhaps neglected to consider in the Middle East region is the role of socialization in the culture and tradition of education in the Arab world. The majority of the students enrolled in undergraduate programmes come from a range of educational and cultural backgrounds. In some Arab education systems, students are encouraged to copy chunks from textbooks. Both primary and secondary pupils are given credit for regurgitating textbook language in their assignments and examinations. The heavy emphasis on examinations has meant that secondary school leavers have been socialized into not questioning what they are taught or denied opportunity to express critical thought. A 1995 study that investigated the quality of schooling in the Arab region showed that students were trained to “memorise and retain answers to ‘fairly fixed questions’ with little or no meaningful context”. A World Bank report done thirteen years later reinforced that little has changed in terms of educational reform and that students are mainly still “passive knowledge recipients”. If this is true then it is possible that Arab students are likely to bring this passive attitude to higher education as well.

Thus, the answer may not lie in being more stringent with entry requirements or raising entry standards into undergraduate programmes. While standardized tests like the IELTS or TOEFL do have merit in demonstrating students’ language proficiency, it is difficult to interpret from the scores if a student has the required academic reading and writing skills, can use and acknowledge sources accurately, or continue to develop as a creative but original writer. The attitude in some institutions is that if students were good enough to get in, then they are good enough to get on with it.

What is the current situation? Government institutions in the UAE have pre-degree foundation programmes that students must pass to proceed into their selected degree courses. Other private universities have also set up academic support units that provide classes alongside degree programmes so that students can simultaneously study for their degree and attend such support classes. However, much of the content of these pre-degree courses or academic support classes tend to focus mainly on language skills with some input on referencing techniques. This may actually be insufficient for many learners from this region. While use of plagiarism detection software can help identify types of academic dishonesty, it may not actually help to deter plagiarism or cheating.

What is the way forward then? The most effective way to foster a culture of academic honesty and instill academic integrity lies in socializing students into their academic contexts. Students coming into universities at whatever level have to be explicitly taught to develop critical reading and writing skills, and taught to avoid plagiarism. Students, may they be undergraduate or postgraduate, have to be rigorously educated on academic writing conventions, using and evaluating sources, citing and referencing skills.

Why is this not happening? This is where the catch lies – in providing quality support for students. As universities cannot charge students for such support, they have to bear the cost of setting up such units and staffing them with appropriately qualified teachers. With these extra costs, some institutions may resort to raising tuition fees, which in turn may result in students opting for cheaper universities. Hence, developing comprehensive learner support systems towards yielding more graduates may result in institutions shouldering a bigger financial burden.

Radhika Iyer-O’Sullivan's professional experience includes teaching English as a Second Language, English as a Foreign Language, English for Academic Purposes, teacher training and mentoring at tertiary level in Malaysia and the UAE. 

She has also also been actively involved in developing and improving university-wide policies and procedures dealing with academic integrity and academic honesty, and training and professional development of both academic and administrative staff in higher education institutions.

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