Why Academic Misconduct is Ubiquitous in a Market Economy and the Hypocrisies of Legal Admissions

What constitutes academic misconduct is not consistently understood widely by students, universities and the courts. It is possible that some students engaging in academic misconduct are unaware of their doing. Despite that honesty is a crucial aspect of disclosure to the admission board for legal practice, the requirement for applicants to make such disclosures of their past is beyond the legal profession. Academic misconduct is increasingly commonplace in a neoliberal economy where the notion of success rather than learning is hegemonic, perhaps there should be a reform in the course structure to harbour the value of meritocracy and integrity.

Wendy Sutherland-Smith who wrote a book called, ‘Plagiarism, the Internet and Student Learning’, maintains that often students’ understanding of cheating is incongruent with academic standards. She argues that there is a common perception that sharing of notes and proof reading works of other students are aspects expected in learning. Thus, collaboration and collusion are likely to be fused. For example, in Law Society of Tasmania v Richardson, Richardson was found guilty of an academic misconduct in which he merely provided a copy of his assignment and lecture notes to assist his fellow student without the realisation of it being a wrong doing. Richardson’s case offers an insight of how such unintentional behaviour can lead to serious consequences. Furthermore, Mary Wyburn, senior lecturer in the discipline of business law at the University of Sydney, observes that with the varieties of assignments being handed out, the rules governing academic misconduct are more complex and are likely to be breached. This is to say, there is a need to set clearer boundaries and guidelines to assist students in understanding how they could better disassociate from these misconducts. Notwithstanding, for much of the reasons stated here, most universities will likely not to formally record such findings when the context is considered. Yet the courts still have little regards to these decision-makings of the universities, as applicants are still required to disclose these matters and such matters are increasingly considered. Not to mention, there are already a lack of codes of conduct within the legal profession to make legal practitioners aware of potential plagiarism. This implies that even established practitioners are engaging in conduct of dishonesty let alone students. Perhaps, there is a need for more consistency in understanding academic misconducts and the context of them.

The requirement for applicants to make disclosure of past academic misconduct is beyond the scope of the legal sphere. There seems to be an injustice in denying an applicant to be admitted for not disclosing such minor matters, or to even strike a practitioner off the roll. Whilst it is argued that commitment to honesty and openness to candour are values that constitutes an officer of the court, this should not be heavily considered as an indication of fit and proper. Subsequently, it is observed that there are no cases that suggest that an applicant who has been found guilty of an academic misconduct, “inherently lacks good fame and character at the time of applying for admission”- Mark Thomas, Admission as a Lawyer: The Fearful Spectre of Academic Misconduct’ (2013). Furthermore, as depicted in Mark Thomas and colleagues’ peer reviewed article, ‘Permissible plagiarism? Navigating normative expectations in the pre- and post-admission landscape’ in the International Journal of the Legal Profession, empirical studies have proven that past misconducts are poor indicators of future behaviour. This has been observed widely in the medical profession. In addition, some academics even assert that the intrusion of the court into these past queries are suggested to be somewhat dogmatic to new applicants than the treatment of established practitioners already in the field. Whilst in post-admission there is a perception that plagiarism, to some extent is encouraged. More often than not, many junior lawyers have their work published under the name of their senior supervisor’s. Contrarily, what is alluded here, is that past academic misconduct in particularly those that are not formally documented should also be indicative of future professional behaviour. It is clear that the perception of plagiarism is more lax in the legal profession than prior to admission.

The number of students engaging in academic misconduct is increasing in today’s society. According to Colleen Vojak, who writes succinctly about the market culture and ethical behaviour in higher education, some 75% of students in university has engaged in some form of academic misconduct. Much of the reason why students engage in academic misconduct can be explained by the value that stems from the current economy. The current economy embraces the notion of the free market; which encourages a competitive culture. Thus, government intervention is limited in establishing the cost of degrees. Sue Saltmarsh, a researcher in the sociology of education, contends that students are treated like consumers and degrees are the goods sold to them. Both Saltmarsh and Vojak argue that the values of higher education are changing within this neoliberal structure. The pursuit to succeed is held more important than being in the process of learning. In turn, the focus is on the end goal rather than the experience and journey that enables to a student to grow. Moreover, as stated by Mark Thomas, “the costs of degrees has created a climate where students are faced with many temptations to plagiarise”. Likewise, when high GPA are favoured in the labour market which is highly competitive and saturated, students will likely to cheat. In essence, the number of academic misconduct is increasing as long as universities continue to operate within a neoliberal framework or in a business model. This ultimately erodes the value of learning and integrity. Rather than changing the legislation to divert future applicants from engaging in academic misconduct, we should address these changing values at the university. Promotion of integrity at the beginning of one’s journey to become a professional may be the best way to counteract unbecoming misconducts.

It is likely that the concept of academic misconduct is not greatly understood by most students. Certain behaviours engaged by students may lead to academic misconduct without the intention, whilst in the legal sphere, lawyers are found to be engaging in some form of plagiarism without facing any consequences or most likely not receiving any ethical attention. It is commonplace for junior lawyers to be found drafting legal documents that will then be signed by their senior supervisors. This certainly raises the question of whether it is plagiarism as it would be considered as a misconduct in the world of academia. Whilst the court argues that disclosing such matters will indicate the applicant’s fitness for practise, it is hard to prove that past misconducts can predict the applicant’s future behaviour in practise. There are no cases which suggest that a person who has been found guilty of academic misconduct, lacks good fame and character at the time they admit for practise. Academic misconduct is observed to be on the rise. This has a strong correlation with the way universities operate economically. In the neoliberal economy, universities are running more like private entities than public institutions, thereby students are essentially consumers and degrees are goods being sold. In this paradigm, the notion of ‘success’ now trumps over ‘learning’ or the notion of evolving as a wiser person at the end of their academic journey. So as long as the higher education continues to operate as a business and the labour market saturated, cheating will be ubiquitous.

Ultimately, this article suggests that we should look to decreasing the temptations for students engaging in academic misconduct rather than punishing them for it.