Earlier this year, new reports on cheating at Canadian universities circulated online, along with CBC’s re-airing of its documentary Faking the Grade. I decided to take a deeper look at the issue since it serves as a flashpoint for the state of higher education and how seriously students take the privilege of attending university. It was also around this time when one of my professors called out the class on Avenue2Learn, announcing discoveries of plagiarism.

I found the accounts more surprising and depressing than I could have ever imagined. Exact statistics to reveal the full scope of the problem are very hard to estimate. However, a CBC survey of 54 Canadian universities showed that 7,086 students were disciplined for cheating in the 2011-2012 school year. This may not seem like a lot, but 12 of the universities declined to give their stats. Then, factor in cases which did not progress to actual disciplinary action. But most importantly, factor in those students who go undetected. So it’s not a shock that the documentary states that 50 percent of university students admitted to cheating, hinting that whatever the actual number really is, it is undoubtedly extremely significant.

There are many reasons why these revelations are disturbing. First of all, cheaters are passing themselves off as something they are not. Anyone who has cheated three times would most certainly be expelled from school, and if one has received a degree and bypassed detection, it’s undeniable that these people falsely hold this credential. To be fair, though, academic dishonesty can cover a wide range of offences, some of which are not cheating. But it is clear here that we are mainly dealing with those harbouring intentions to deceive.

Another ethical problem is that with so many people cheating we have an exceptionally high number of people arbitrarily choosing which rules they deem important and which they feel no guilt about breaking. The cheater also wishes to break rules they want others to follow so that they can benefit at their expense.

For academic purposes, the extent of cheating in universities necessitates us to realize that having a degree doesn’t mean that one is “highly educated.” In fact, with the overabundance of degree holders in the job market it is disconcerting to admit how many of them are frauds.

But with a bachelor’s degree being more crucial than ever, it is inevitable that education has become even more of a commodity. This drives the standard for doing whatever it takes, ironically raising the bar further, and pushing us even harder. Cheating normalizes these unrealistic expectations by creating the illusion that a much higher number of people are succeeding than is actually the case. Though fair marks don’t mean you’ll clean toilets, these do mean being several rungs below your peers.

The things I read while trying to get a handle on this problem were enough to make one cynical. The videos online, for instance, of “students” sharing methods to cheat your way through school were particularly disgraceful.

But as distasteful as this all is, what ought to be done about it?

Cheating is as old as humankind and will always be here in some form. To try to eradicate it is a huge waste of time, though we can be vigilant and guard against a slippery slope. Though it’s definitely worth discussing, solutions seem to be out of reach.

I think what’s more important is to try to determine what our attitudes towards cheating are. Consider a brilliant, caring doctor who grossly cheated during his undergrad and lost a fortune from bad investments. Some could say that had he been found out early on he never would have gotten into medical school and made so much money to begin with.

What about a person who has cheated five times during university and finally gets caught? Does she deserve to have all her other work negated because of that? Personally, I might be persuaded to say no if said hypothetical person was also very well-read, truly passionate about learning, and graduated as someone who was intellectually literate versus someone who never cheated but rarely cracked open a book. These are the sort of moral dilemmas that ought to be considered.

But whether or not the above is even worth considering, and as abhorrent as cheating can be, I think the point is that we can’t always judge people and their actions with an abstract label, good or bad. It is all too easy to condemn someone as this or that, seeing everything as black and white. This topic could be hotly debated, but in the end one can only offer their opinion at the expense of leaving a lot of unanswered questions.

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