ACADEMIC ethics and integrity should be a big and growing concern for us and all the institutions of higher learning in the country.
Cheating and plagiarism are serious offences that undermine the spirit of truth in university life. It should be regarded as a crime.
In fact, all institutions of higher learning should include lectures and discussions on these vices during orientation week and introduce students to their honour codes.
Lectures, seminars and religious sermons should remind them about the importance of academic integrity and ethics.
Personalities and institutions, such as Institut Integriti Malaysia, religious councils, Bar Council and others could be invited to these sessions and help enhance an institution's academic integrity and ethics.
The need for academic integrity must be emphasised to reinstate confidence in the thousands of degrees produced each year.
Cases of students cheating during examinations and plagiarism, that is, copying material from sources and submitting it as one's own, are common.
Some senior students are willing to do the projects and assignments for a fee. In these institutions, friendship has been identified as one of the causes of plagiarism. Here, students allow friends to copy their assignments.
We need to emphasise that the notion of academic integrity stands well over and above friendship or solidarity.
Many lecturers turn a blind eye to cheating and plagiarism.
Occasionally, even lecturers pressured to do research might plagiarise, falsify data and present work that is only partly theirs.
The Internet's widespread availability and its potential to facilitate copying, pasting and editing has brought nothing but misery to the academic world.
In research projects for final-year degree courses, for example, it is next to impossible to verify if the project is lifted from a friend and adapted to look like one's own.
It is also difficult to verify whether real research has been undertaken and the data obtained honestly. Sad to say, even teachers and would-be teachers pursuing degree courses are resorting to these undignified practices.
As guardians of ethics and morals, teachers and lecturers should be the fortress of academic integrity and ethics.
Ironically, we have all become victims of our own economic success. Studies have shown that this is a symptom of many fast-developing countries trying to develop their education system on the fast track.
It also has a strong correlation with the fast social development of a country. The "educated uneducated" could be one of the consequences of this.
Interestingly, the rot in academic integrity is generally a reflection of our degenerating public values. It can be traced to the school-based assessments where copying and "assistance" given by family members and teachers is considered permissible.
Degrees and diplomas are now a basic requirement for many jobs and policies are designed around this need.
One solution has been allowing the establishment of more private universities, without a deep study of the consequences.
Our liberal educational policies that allow for the setting up of private institutions of higher learning has become one of the root causes of academic decay.
Today, we witness the rapid growth of hundreds of private institutes of higher learning of dubious quality, lacking in funds and organisational ability.
Except for a few, most of these institutions are concentrating on a limited number of courses, such as accountancy, business and computer studies which do not require a large capital outlay.
These institutions are catering for the small pool of students with some targeting foreigners. Most are profit-motivated enterprises staffed with young and inexperienced lecturers with low standards of English and zero knowledge of classroom pedagogy.
Some of the lecturers are there not through choice or love for the profession but because of financial necessity. This, coupled with low pay and a lack of opportunities, have led to indifference and poor professional standards among them.
The older generation of educationists is concerned with the quality of the degrees and diplomas produced by these institutions. Today, anyone can get a loan, enter university and obtain a degree.
The bulk of our students are in universities not in search of knowledge and skills but for the paper qualification, without any concern on how they acquired it.
Honest and motivated students pursuing their studies for knowledge and skills would strive for genuine academic work that would enhance their learning process that ultimately, earn them not only knowledge and skills but also respect.
Because of these and other factors, our degrees are fast becoming devalued as employers despair over the quality of candidates' knowledge, soft skills and work skills.
This could be the reason many international companies prefer overseas students. A survey by a reputable firm in Malaysia showed that after a few years of service in international firms, overseas graduates from the United Kingdom, United States and Australia get promoted and earn 20 per cent more than their local counterparts.
Interestingly, the gap is not so obvious in Singapore where graduates from Singaporean universities get equal promotion opportunities and earn the same salary as their overseas counterparts.
One of the causes of the poor standards could be the autonomy given to our private institutions of higher learning to set, conduct and assess their internal examinations and award their own degrees.
The system is often open to abuse. How, for example, do you evaluate the standards and markings of the papers set by these institutions? In many smaller institutions, the lecturers, who set the examination papers, are on the panel to monitor and review the papers.
We need to counter this problem by providing a model to assure quality and standards in internal examinations. Many institutions abroad solve the problem by appointing external boards of examiners to monitor the standards.
Similarly, the government could appoint boards of external examiners with expertise to work hand in hand with the Malaysian Qualification Agency to assess, regulate and monitor the internal papers of these institutions.
This could be a tedious and expensive affair, but in the long run, it should salvage and reinstate confidence in the thousands of degrees produced every year.
The universities could also have their own or external panels to interview students before awarding them degrees.
This would gauge their end products and students' preparedness, knowledge, work skills and soft skills before they join the workforce.
If these or other alternatives are not found quickly, the long-term effect might be a loss of confidence in our higher education system. And soon, degrees from our country might become a joke and at the expense of many universities which are truly of the highest standard.
By M. Alkut, Kota Baru, Kelantan | firstname.lastname@example.org Source: New Straits Times Letters to the Editors 11 September 2012