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The Independent Online
THE END of every academic year brings with it a particular malaise: cases of cheating in examinations. And all over the country people are saying the same thing: cheating is on the increase, in some places it is reaching epidemic proportions. How has this happened?

It's a fact of life that if you have examinations, you also have people who try to subvert the system. Colourful tales of supercheats abound.

An Italian newspaper recently ran a story about a student whose mother had stitched 200 tiny pockets on to his vest, all carefully stuffed with notes to take into the exam.

Then there was the British student seen with notes in the exam room which he then ate, so that he could not be formally accused of cheating.

My worst case was the girl who brought in a framed picture of the Virgin Mary to bring her good luck. Later I saw her fishing around for the notes hidden in the back. Then there are the students who claim to need the lavatory every 15 minutes or so.

I almost long for the good old days when you couldn't take anything into the exam with you, and you just weren't allowed to leave the room. You had to empty your bladder beforehand, and refrain from drinking for an hour before the start.

Cheating is not on the increase because today's generations are more cunning than their predecessors.

The two key factors at fault are the increased use of continuous assessment instead of formal exams and advances in IT. Now you can download so much material from the Internet, examiners are hard-put to trace it. You can buy ready written essays from the Web. You can store information on tiny computers or use calculators with extended memories.

As student numbers grow, with no parallel growth of academics to teach them, so the increased marking is more and more rushed. With less time to chase sources, the would-be plagiarists feel ever more secure, and the whole thing spreads like cancer.

Yet universities have tough rules on cheating, and students are constantly reminded of the penalties if they're ignored. But the problem seems to increase, however hard universities try to stop it.

My feeling is that we are undergoing a shift in the cultural climate where cheating is concerned. Once regarded as an appallingly treacherous action, cheating in examinations now carries less stigma. Cases of cheating politicians and other public figures, who refuse to resign or apologise, are standard news items in the daily papers, leading one to conclude that if it's all right for them to cheat, why shouldn't the rest of us?

Since a degree is increasingly seen as a commodity, tailored to fit the needs of the customers, it is hardly remarkable that many of the customers engage in a bit of sharp practice. With some of the dubious role models in the public eye, we should probably be thankful that so many students still rely on their own resources, instead of buying into someone else's. For the moment.

The writer is Pro-vice-chancellor of Warwick University