While students’ academic dishonesty is a serious challenge affecting higher education institutions in various forms globally, in Namibia it seems that this academic misconduct is now at an unprecedented level that threatens to make the whole exercise and process of awarding qualifications a mockery if higher education institutions and stakeholders do not take sterner and harsher measures to nip this illicit behaviour in the bud.
In their research paper titled Academic Dishonesty among University Students: The Roles of the Psychopathy, Motivation and Self-efficacy, Lidia Baran and Peter K. Jonason (2020) say: “Academic dishonesty refers to behaviours aimed at giving or receiving information from others, using unauthorized materials, and circumventing the sanctioned assessment process in an academic context.” Simply put, academic dishonesty is cheating.
In our case, there is evidence to suggest that the introduction of online classes and blended learning because of the Covid-19 pandemic has worsened academic dishonesty which has become a scourge that is negatively affecting our students’ education and acquisition of necessary skills for the job market. To put it bluntly, one professor, offended by the blatant and ubiquitous presence of academic dishonesty in this country, said: “We are giving degrees for nothing.” This is after he had incidentally discovered that someone had been contracted to write assignments by his students in two modules. On further enquiry, the professor found out that the ‘assignment assistant’ - presumably someone with at least a degree in the field of study, or at the worst someone without any knowledge of the discipline at all - had the audacity of openly advertising at campuses and on social media saying ‘get your assignments written for you at cheap prices’. What is disturbing is that the unscrupulous accomplices of academic dishonesty have invaded institutions of higher education with their advertisements which they paste on available spaces at vantage points to attract the attention of students. And it looks like academics have become oblivious of this ‘toxic’ information which, in my opinion, should be destroyed forthwith when it is pasted on walls and notice boards.
Another form of academic dishonesty is through what has become to be known as students’ syndicates. While study groups are encouraged in academia for the sake of cross-fertilisation of ideas during discussions, it is improper to uses these groups as syndicates that produce assignments and research papers in clandestine ways. Assignments for different modules are produced by different members of the syndicate and circulated for others to copy and submit as their own. In order to avoid detection by their professors, there might be some slight changes, but in some cases, these students are not so smart as they end up being caught by their alert lecturers. It is saddening to note that students have sharpened their skills of academic dishonesty all way into examinations. There are many cases of students found with notes and other materials which they are not supposed to use when writing examinations. Other students have gone to the extent of writing notes on the masks during these times of Covid-19 when everyone is supposed to be masking themselves in public places.
Plagiarism, the use of someone’s works, words or ideas without acknowledging the sources or authors, is a prevalent form of academic dishonesty that is negatively affecting students in writing assignments and research papers. Among other things, cutting and pasting information as it is from different internet sources offers an easy way of writing an assignment for many students. Other students copy information from academic books and use it verbatim to answer their assignment questions. These forms of regurgitating information are prohibited in academia; they are forms of academic misconduct that inhibit the creation and communication of knowledge. Plagiarism detecting software becomes handy for institutions to deter students from this bad practice that has taken deep roots in academia.
Also, students’ sloppiness in compiling information to use in writing assignments and research papers usually results in students inadvertently using scholars’ works and ideas without acknowledgement. Related to sloppiness there are instances in which students falsify the results of their research papers because of laziness or lack of integrity.
There are various initiatives that higher education institutions can take to reduce academic dishonesty. Erica J. Morris (2018) in her article titled Academic Integrity Matters: Five Considerations for Addressing Contract Cheating, advises institutions by saying that: “there is a need for higher education institutions to ensure a ‘systemic approach’, in which academic integrity is integral to the wide range of institutional activity and processes, including student recruitment, orientation and induction; policy and procedures; teaching and learning practices; working with students; the professional development of staff; and the use of technology (e.g. text-matching software).”
In other words, institutions must nurture academic integrity in students from the time they are admitted into programmes up to when they graduate, and onwards in life. Academic dishonesty must be regarded as an anathema or an abomination not to be committed at all costs. Offenders must get stiffer punishment such as being blacklisted or being suspended from tertiary education for long periods. Some scholars have suggested that in addition to the usual academic writing modules that students take in their first year of study, institutions must introduce ethics modules that will most likely have a drip-drip effect on the behaviour of students as far as instilling the values of academic integrity in students is concerned. All first-year students may be required to register for the module Introduction to Applied Ethics that will run the whole year. The objective of this module will be, among other things, to teach them that it is morally wrong to ask third parties to write assignments for them or to plagiarise information from sources without proper acknowledgement.
In sum, cultivating a culture of academic integrity in students is an effective way of dealing with academic dishonesty in our institutions. Students must always bear in mind that when they want to use another person works, words or ideas, proper academic attribution or referencing must be followed. Students must be taught to be their censors as far as academic dishonesty is concerned. In other words, they should use their conscience and judge their actions appropriately s in the absence of their lectures and supervisors.