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I have dedicated four years of my life in a journey at a so-called "respectable" university in the Middle East as an undergraduate student pursuing my degree. In this journey, a period equivalent to half of my time spent in the university had arrived whereby unrest and protest coupled with surge in COVID cases saw our classes shift towards online learning and online exams.

It was during this period that I got to encounter countless cases of cheating and corruption among my colleagues mainly during online exams. I offer four main cases of far-fetched cheating:

  1. In my Calculus III and IV courses, I recorded approximately 120 students cheating via WhatsApp groups by sending each other snapshots of the exam questions.

  2. Other than the de facto method of obtaining answers to assignment questions from experts (Chegg), I have a huge amount of evidence that students hired academic professionals who would complete semester-long projects for them in exchange for adequate amount of money (and final year projects!)

  3. The department I am enrolled in during my undergraduate studies allows for junior/senior undergraduates to take part in undergraduate research with professors who are working with PhD students. I had two individuals (who also took part in mass cheating during exams) asking me and even attempting to bribe me to do their research tasks.

  4. Four students openly boasted about hiring experts to sit and do GRE exam for them (during lockdown period)

For (1) I sent an email to the coordinator of the course showing them all the evidence needed, for which I received a reply with an encouraging note from the coordinate vowing that they will investigate the matter. Eventually, nothing really happened and no one was disciplined.

For (2) I received a response in one instance from my instructor telling me that no cheating was eventually concluded and that all the projects were graded fairly. In other instances I did not receive a response at all.

For (4) I don't have anything other than confessions plainly stated.

Regarding (3) the only reason why I didn't report to the professor is due to what any honest student fears mostly about, which is developing personal feuds with other students that could escalate into being kicked out from their jock-dominated-social environment, i.e., forced isolation.

I must note that my country is facing a financial crisis and so my university is having a financial burden and sinking slowly. Thus, most students are dependent on financial aid that can be tossed off if a student fails or performs poorly in a course. This type of fear gives ground for individuals to rely on others to do their work or hire tutors for a couple of bucks to accomplish their work and research. This increases their boldness and pushes them to cheat more and more on an unprecedented scale.

The sad part is that professors are also affected by this financial burden and so they are embedded to their research work so much that the rope that connects a professor's support to a concerned undergraduate is cut as it is apparent that professors just "want to get the job done" and they have no time for us. Therefore, no professor seems to be taking any complaint from a student seriously.

Question 1: How should a student go on to address issues of cheating if instructors are unwilling to take these issue seriously?

Question 2: How should a student willing to disclose evidence of cheating handle the possible repercussions involving a social pressure exhibited by these cheating students towards the honest student?

I have personally developed mental health problems due to this issue and I lost motivation to study or look at my classmates as human beings. I personally am still in a state of shock knowing that cheaters got away with it (GRE!!!) in a period of 2 years and are now currently pursuing their graduate studies in top European and US universities or working in top industrial companies. This has led me to develop a grudge against my university as I feel that my university's poor response to cheating was a personal attack on me and many hardworking students.

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    A1. Realise it's not your job to address issues of cheating, just to report them (or offer your research services for a fee ;-). I don't get this: looking at my classmates as human beings. This assumes that human beings don't cheat. Oh, they cheat. Some relief: cheaters pursuing grad studies in top unis and those employed by top industrial companies aren't likely to get very far. Lastly, it's not a personal attack. You have given reasons for the behaviour: covid, unrest and turmoil, an economic crisis. I'm not excusing it, just saying don't take it as a personal attack - it's not.
    – mcalex
    Aug 25 at 8:41
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    Are you originally from the same country?
    – pipe
    Aug 25 at 15:16
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    This is basically every university nowadays. Even Big Shot unis have that sort of issue, even if it isn't as out-there-in-your-face as the cases you faced on yours.
    – T. Sar
    Aug 25 at 16:44
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    It isn't every university nowadays, only those that have the wrong (often "perverse") incentives. Aug 25 at 22:07
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    "I sent an email to the coordinator of the course" You sent emails to the teacher. You didn't get a satisfactory response. Are there other people you can send the proof too? His boss? HR? Director of mathematics at the university? My guess is his job hinges on teaching successfully and this kind of scandal would adversely affect him. telling him doesn't mean a real investigation was done so maybe it's time to move higher.
    – WernerCD
    Aug 26 at 2:42

6 Answers 6

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At the end of the day, you have very little influence over what others do and what your university does. You can write expository pieces in newspapers if you want, but the likelihood of fundamentally changing anything is relatively small, certainly if you are in a country that has bigger problems than dealing with students who cheat on an exam.

But you can (and probably should!) see things differently. The purpose of a university education is not to get a specific high GPA. It is to get an education, which if you took studying for exams seriously, you did. The point is that cheating on exams might get you hired somewhere, but if you don't actually know the material, it will also get you fired just as quickly -- both in industry as well as from graduate programs abroad. In the end, it is probably true that playing by the rules and being a generally ethical person does, in circumstances like yours, occasionally require a longer path in life. But in the end, you will be the one who succeeds in work life because you actually know stuff, whereas those around you who have cheated do not.

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    It's not true that cheaters will get fired. After all, just look at how many companies cheat on an incredibly large scale and get away with it for years if not decades. Not to talk about politicians... I don't think you're correct to tell people that not cheating will give you "success in work life" compared to cheaters, because it makes things worse when they find out that your statement is false.
    – user21820
    Aug 25 at 9:01
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    @user21820 Counterexamples notwithstanding, people who are not qualified for a job generally don't last in that job. You can't typically fake your way to a PhD at a Western research university, for example (counterexamples notwithstanding again), just because you managed to get into the program. Aug 25 at 12:39
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    @user21820 I am afraid it is you who didn't get my point. Of course many people, and most certainly many for-profit companies, cheat. That doesn't mean they like it when someone cheats them, and hiring someone who cannot do their job is cheating the company. So even if it's a company that thrives on cheating its clients, it won't stand for having its own employees cheat it. Even if your job is fabricating fake data, you can't do that convincingly—and cheating needs to be convincing—unless you have the required knowledge.
    – terdon
    Aug 25 at 12:51
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    @terdon: I don't have any interest in arguing, but I think you need to reconsider your views. Many cheaters rely on charisma to get a job, and are clever enough to work around their own incompetency. Many so-called programmers simply copy-paste their code from Stack Overflow without actually understanding what is happening. And some companies (e.g. British American Tobacco) deliberately hire people who are willing to cheat (others), and you're not going to know it until you start digging.
    – user21820
    Aug 25 at 13:39
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    I have worked places where people have been let go after being brought on when it became clear that they weren't competent and had lied during the interview process and faked/cheated their way through the tech screen. I have worked other places where executives brought in lasted years before getting let go despite demonstrating that they were incompetent at everything but first impressions and lying. Each situation is different and it's wrong to paint them all as one way or the other. Aug 25 at 16:13
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Generally speaking, you have put in your work and tried to expose them. Maybe the teachers don't care because it's too much work or maybe so many students are affected that they'd have empty classrooms if all cheaters got expelled. Since you mentioned that 120 students cheated, I personally believe it's a mix of the two.

At the end of the day, will the students that cheated and proceeded into top universities and jobs drop out straight away because they unjustly got through Calculus III and IV for free? Honestly speaking, I kind of doubt it. Someone who cheats because it is convenient to do so doesn't suddenly invalidate everything they are capable and knowledgable of because of that fact. They can still have great paying jobs with their unjustly acquired degrees because not every knowledge gap is important.

You didn't cheat. You didn't take that convenient shortcut that was presented to many students during COVID-19. That is commendable and it was the right thing to do. But doing the right thing is not always rewarded and doing the wrong thing is not always punished. The ones in charge have no intention of doing anything about it which means that you can not do a thing about it. For your own sanity's sake, you should let go of the topic.

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    +1 for letting go of the "fair world" paradigm, and being able to at least mentally cope if it isn't.
    – Stilez
    Aug 25 at 12:28
  • @Stilez The just-world fallacy/paradigm, which can be succinctly thought of as "you get what you deserve".
    – Toby Mak
    Aug 26 at 13:39
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It appears that cheating is "socially acceptable" at your university.

That leaves you two options:

  1. You can try to change the system. Apparently, the students, the teachers and the administration are all (more or less) OK with how things currently are, so you'd be fighting all of them. Alone.

  2. Or you could accept that, unfortunately, there is injustice in the world, and that it is not your job to fix all that. You tried your best, now move on. If you can, continue your academic journey at a place that more closely matches your moral standards. In my personal experience, cheating is taken more seriously in Europe than in the place you describe, and even more so in the US.

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    even strongly frowned upon in the US - Um, I don't know how the US compares to Europe, but you make it sound like the US is a country of outlaws. Okay, there are a lot of cheaters, but when caught, cheating is taken quite seriously by US universities.
    – Kimball
    Aug 26 at 2:18
  • @Kimball: Sorry, I meant to say the exact opposite, i.e., that cheating is not seen as ok (= frowned upon) in the US. Did I use the wrong idiom? English is not my first language...
    – Heinzi
    Aug 26 at 5:14
  • @Kimball: Or is it the "even"? I just realized that the sentence could be read as "even in [the wild and lawless] US cheating is taken seriously", whereas I meant "in the US, cheating is taken even more seriously than in Europe". Is that it?
    – Heinzi
    Aug 26 at 5:34
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    Ah, yes, it was the "even" instead of "even more" that gave it the opposite meaning. I edited this. Besides that, "frowned upon" makes it seem like it's tolerated but not well regarded, rather than punished. However, sometimes one understates things for amusement/politeness, and I didn't edit this part, but you could if you wanted to make the statement clearer/stronger.
    – Kimball
    Aug 26 at 5:53
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Sadly, this sort of thing happens. It probably happens to a greater or lesser extent in every single university in the world. Sometimes the culprits are caught and penalised, sometimes they are not. I realise that you are passionate about things being done honestly and fairly. This is very commendable.

However, there is probably not much more you can do now that you have reported the issues. You have done the right thing and now it's time to look after yourself. Try not to get disillusioned about the process of education - there is still, I assume, education to be gained at your university despite the corruption you have seen. Take advantage of that, learn and understand everything you can. You know that you have done the right thing and that you have not followed other students' unethical behaviour. You know, you absolutely know, that you are right and they are wrong. It may be frustrating if you see students gaining advancement from cheating, but try not to let it get to you. You are right. You are right.

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As I see it, you have two possibilities:

  • You can become an activist about this issue, and figure out ways to publicize the issues, and work to imrpove the system.
  • You can focus on yourself, get your own stuff in order (I assume that is already the case), get a degree as well as you can, and then move on to find a job outside of academia.

(Presumably the third option - i.e. focussing on yourself and then staying in academia, is not one you are even remotely considering, since it already puts you into mental issues right now.)

There are pro's and con's to either route. Obviously, the first is harder than the second. Depending on which country you are in, it might just a futile waste of your time and energy - or it might put you into actual bodily danger. The chances of success are probably very, very tiny. Fighting corruption is usually not something a single person can successfully do, unless they are an incredibly and extraordinarily stable personality (which you might not be, as you are already developing mental issues simply by witnessing the issue).

The second solution is safe, straightforward and easy and you would have done it anyways, if you had never witnessed the corruption. It will incur no further drawbacks, and will allow you to put that phase of your life behind you and move on.

So far the choice is clear. Move on.

The only reason to fight the corruption (for you personally) is if you decide that you simply could not live with the decision to turn your back on it. If the rest of your life basically becomes impossible to live with you knowing that you did nothing, then it might just be the better path for you to indeed try and fight.

So what should you do? I would suggest to take a long and deep soul-search and really decide whether you can move on or not. Take into consideration that some things simply are as they are.

  • Consider that it is highly likely that the uni administration is perfectly aware about the situation.
  • Take into consideration that they might actually be working on some solution (in which case they don't need you) - or if not, that they have decided that this is the way it's going to be, for whatever reason (in which case you might not only be fighting the students, but also the management).
  • Assume that COVID will eventually pass, and the overabundance of remote work (and tests) might eventually go away.
  • Accept that cheaters will have less chances in the job market simply due to the fact that they will have less knowledge - and if this is not the case, then what was the knowledge useful for, in the first place? Then this points more to an indication that whatever that uni offers is useless (at least for jobs - which is the only spot where the test results matter).

If all of that, and maybe additional arguments from the other posts, don't turn you around, then I would suggest to find like-minded people (within or without the uni management - the first probably only if you can really trust them, and if you find a way to feel out their stance about this before unleashing tons of accusations) and figure out together how to proceed.

It would be hard to give you more concrete tips, as we know nothing about your situation. You might start by researching how corruption was generally fought in the past, in other countries/situations, and check if you find inspiration from that - I'm sure there are books etc. about that around.

If your mental issues do not go away, or become worse, try to get someone to talk about that (professional or friends, possibly far away from the uni to avoid even more issues stemming from that discussion...).

Good luck, whatever you decide to do!

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Post the material online, anonymously. Then focus on your education and research. Sadly, there are "cultural differences" in how education works in different countries. - By the way, professors and administrators will not want to be embarrassed and may well try to sabotage you, which is why it's better to post this anonymously. Also, keep in mind that universities in Europe and the US aren't necessarily oblivious to this. It's not a new problem, and they may well know that academic records from certain countries are not reliable.

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