International News

International News

Letter from the London

Internet plagiarism epidemic

J. Thomas
With the exam and essays season drawing to a close, lecturers, examiners and school teachers in Britain are confronted with the prospect of not only marking huge numbers of answer papers and essays, but also being extra vigilant about the possibility of at least some of their students presenting work that is not entirely their own.

In May, a student of English at the University of Kent, was expelled following a routine review of his work which "revealed extensive plagiarism from internet sources". His downloading hyperactivity was discovered the day before his final exam, and he is now suing the university for negligence, claiming he wasn’t warned that such ‘research’ is against university regulations.

Kent University authorities insist they have "robust and well established procedures in place to combat plagiarism and all students are given clear guidance on this issue in the faculty and departments’ handbooks". A spokesman for the National Union of Students says that while it doesn’t condone plagiarism, there is an urgent need for universities to spell out what is, and what is not acceptable practice regarding utilisation of information available on the worldwide web.

Most educationists concede that such discovered cases are the tip of a very large iceberg. Internet research has now become one of the first ports of call for education material at all levels. The Times Educational Supplement recently revealed that thousands of teenagers are signing up on-line to swap essays, and that at least six major websites offer services targeted at British 14-18 year olds.

Student Media Services Ltd, for example, runs a website which has 47,000 users and describes itself as the "home of a collaborative project to preserve intellectual and academic information and catalogue it for the benefit of students". It offers a tailor-made service of essays written by undergraduates. Asking prices are £167.95 (Rs.13,600) for a ten-page A-level essay or £95.95 (Rs.7,770) for an eight-page GCSE essay, written on two days’ notice.

Nevertheless the indications are that the majority of students plagiarise out of ignorance, the difficulty being that electronic sources of information are not perceived as intellectual property in the same way as printed material.

Within academia the current emphasis is on a coordinated approach to deal with the problem — provision of clear and enforced guidelines on plagiarism, and combining feedback and fear to discourage copying and collusion. Dr. Chris Willmott of Leicester University devised an informal blueprint four years ago to detect academic plagiarism. He says that vigilant teachers can spot the problem from tell-tale signs in their students’ coursework by being aware of their writing styles and recognising promptly when they deviate from normal. If they suspect a work is not the student’s own, they need only to type five or six words from the pupil’s essay on to a web search engine to verify their suspicion.

Although achieving high marks for someone else’s coursework can bring little satisfaction, the need to gain at least a 2:1 degree may override common sense. Perhaps it is the quick fix solution we use in so many other areas of life. Spending long hours poring over books may seem just a waste of time when all it takes is the touch of a button. The internet is of course, a wonderful tool, but it is important to remember it is just that.

(Jacqueline Thomas is a London-based journalist/ academic)

United States

Declining graduates cause alarm

America: college students: enrollment graduation mismatch
American university students are dropping out at higher and higher levels, and universities are doing too little to keep poor and non-white students in particular from failing to graduate, according to a recent study. Nearly 40 percent of all degree-seeking students fail to graduate within six years, according to a report by a non-partisan advocacy group, The Education Trust. This is the first time graduation percentages have been analysed by race. About half of black and Hispanic students drop out within six years, the trust reports.

Despite increased overall enrollments, the American higher education system "is failing to graduate the numbers of students needed if we are to continue to compete in a global economy," says the report’s author, Kevin Carey. "And a disproportionate number of these students are low-income and minority students. For both moral and economic reasons, we must change the way we do business in higher education in this country."

The report cites several reasons for the problem, including spiralling tuition costs and poor preparation at primary education level. Among other things, it recommends that graduation rates should, at least in part, be reflected in funding for public universities.

Four out of five American students of university age enroll in some form of higher education, but graduation rates have not kept pace. At some institutions studied by the trust, one in every four students drops out in the first year alone. Sixty-three percent of all students graduate within six years. That number falls to 54 percent among low-income students, 47 percent among Hispanics and 46 percent among blacks.

Among the 772 universities where at least 5 percent of undergraduates are black, the study found, 299 have graduation rates for blacks of under 30 percent, 164 under 20 percent and 68 under 10 percent.

"Over the past ten years, the US has lost its first-place position in the developed world in terms of college-going rates," says Carey. "Similarly, we’ve slipped from first in college attainment as measured by the percentage of 25 to 34 year olds with a four year degree. Every country surveyed but the US made great strides in increasing college attainment rates for the current generation compared with the last."

The Education Trust is an independent organisation that encourages diversity in US universities.


Emerging student loans mountain

Japan’s student loan foundation is chasing billions of yen in outstanding loans despite changing its status to an "autonomous administrative unit", rather than a public corporation, in April. Official auditors told the Japan Scholarship Foundation, which holds loans worth a total of ¥1.55 trillion (Rs.34,380 crore), that it must manage its portfolio more diligently if it does not want unrecoverable loans to spiral out of control.

The first independent audit of the foundation unearthed that it had non-paying loans exceeding ¥156 billion (Rs.6,552 crore) of which ¥44.4 billion (Rs.1,865 crore) was deemed to be uncollectible. Auditors advised the fund to address the problem immediately or bad debt would grow because of the continuing economic slump and the lack of well-paid full-time jobs for university graduates. They urged the foundation to check on the financial status of students’ guarantors to improve future recovery rates.

The foundation has its roots in an entity that was created in 1943 to offer loans to needy students. By the end of 2002, it had lent about ¥5.54 trillion (Rs.191,497 crore) to 6.76 million students. The foundation operates on cash it borrows from the national budget, returns on its investments of funds and income from recovered loans. Most loans go to students who attend private universities and pay, on average, almost twice as much as students who attend public institutions.

In recent years, private universities have expanded their financial assistance packages to students to maintain enrollments because the number of high-school graduates peaked in the mid-1990s and has been falling since. Families distressed by the continued bad economy and unemployment have made greater use of that aid, including loans provided by the foundation. This includes a significant increase in the number of families whose children receive aid because of the suicide of one or even both parents due to loss of a job or personal bankruptcy.


First two universities get started

Zanzibar, which for decades sent its students to the Tanzania mainland 25 miles away or to the Soviet Union, finally has two universities, one private and one state-owned.

Stone Town, Zanzibar: big step forward
An attempt to set up Zanzibar’s first university failed in 1998. British businessman Thomas Wells’ East Africa Development Company (EADC) had been raising funds to build a marina, offshore banking facilities, a mosque and university in Nungwi, the northern tip of Zanzibar island. But Wells was arrested for his part in a financial scandal that resulted in resignations from the island’s government. The EADC scheme’s collapse dashed hopes of a university in an area where 60 percent of the population is under 20.

The provision of education through private funds was outlawed in Zanzibar after the 1964 socialist revolution. But in the 1990s, a Tanzanian form of perestroika opened the door to attempts to establish a local university. When the EADC project collapsed, the Darul Iman Charitable Association was in discussions with the Tanzanian government to build a technical college in Tunguu, 12 miles from Stone Town, the island’s capital.

The private college was redesignated Zanzibar University. It is primarily a business school, with a centre for small business development linked to the Euro-African Management Research Centre in Maastricht. It charges local students 8,000 shillings (Rs.320) a year, and US $1,000 (Rs.45,000) a year to students outside Zanzibar. Since the university opened in 1998, faculties of law, arts and social sciences have been added.

The opening hastened a state initiative to establish the State University of Zanzibar (Suza). It opened in 1999 in converted government buildings near Stone Town. Amani Abeid Karume, the island’s president, is its chancellor.

Suza has been arts based but the first science students are due to be admitted in September this year. Islanders receive free tuition — there are more than 300 students. Five more faculties are planned — engineering, business, agriculture, law and medicine.

For an island that has seen acute poverty since the imposition of African socialism, the arrival of a new state university is a big step forward. Refreshingly, there has been an unexpectedly large uptake of places among young women. The university has 98 female and 88 male students.

"Boys find they can make money from tourism, so they do not want to enroll," says Suleiman Juma, the university’s principal administrative officer. "We wonder what will happen in a few years when the women on Zanzibar are better educated than their husbands."


Cloudy future for independent schools

The future of independent schools in Zimbabwe is hanging in the balance following threats of a government takeover, the arrest of head teachers, accusations of racism and forced fee cuts that have already rendered several schools technically insolvent. All 46 private schools were allowed to reopen after being ordered to close last month ahead of a new term.

They were accused of hiking fees steeply without the permission of the permanent secretary of education, allegedly breaching the country’s Education Act. In order to reopen, schools first had to sign "acceptance agreements" to lower fees, after they had reportedly shot up by up to 1,000 percent.

The Association of Trust Schools backed fee agreements so that schools could reopen, but warned of pending bankruptcies. Financial restrictions, including a ban on donations, have left schools heading for a cash crisis as inflation is now running at 580 percent. Zimbabwe’s gross national product has shrunk one-third in five years. The fees charged by schools range from £1,000 (Rs.81,000) to £3,500 (Rs.2.8 lakh).

The education minister, Aeneas Chigwedere, says that schools had raised fees to exclude black children, to generate huge profits for British owners, to create jobs for whites and to churn out "Rhodesians". He warns that the government would do to "racist" private schools what it did to white farms — take them over. He accused black parents who send their children to the independent sector of being "mentally colonised".

Two-thirds of the 30,000 private pupils are black and include among them the children of a number of senior politicians, leading to suspicions that they are mainly concerned about how the rising cost of fees will affect their own pockets. One board member of a private school, speaking on condition of anonymity, says there is a wider political aim: "These schools keep many of the whites who are still here. They also harbour children of many black upper and middle class parents, who generally don’t support Zanu-PF (the ruling party)."

Following the signing of acceptance agreements, the police, who had forcibly barred teachers and pupils from entering premises in early May, were stood down. About a dozen prominent headteachers and board members were released from police cells, where several had been badly treated. Schools are now considering legal action, but many are reluctant to pursue the issue through the courts, given that the government is unlikely to abide by any rulings. "It seems our best route now might be negotiation," says the school board member.

Independent schools will be lobbying government and making promises to cut costs, increase class sizes, keep down fees and increase the numbers of black teachers, pupils and parent representatives.


Professor opposes tuition fee flexibility

Australian universities cannot be trusted with the freedom to set their own tuition fees, according to the economist who designed the Higher Education Contribution Scheme (HECS) 15 years ago.

Australian varsity students: vulnerable targets
Bruce Chapman, director of the Centre for Economic Policy Research at the Australian National University, says in his report on Australian higher education funding that allowing higher education institutions to fix fees will have a profound impact on poor students seeking access to university. According to him, students who enroll may end up paying more for their degrees than it costs the universities to deliver them.

Prof. Chapman is particularly critical of the government’s move to allow universities to add top-up fees to the charges imposed under HECS next year, and to set their own fees for students willing to pay the full tuition cost. He also questions the introduction of a HECS-type loans system that will offer a maximum of A$50,000 (Rs.22.5 lakh) to those prepared to pay full fees. Chapman says some students will exhaust the loan limit before graduating and might be forced to drop out.

Current indications point to a rapid rise in the charges universities impose and a substantial increase in the number of students taking loans. The proportion of costs then borne by students will be very large, predicts Chapman. "There is no case for allowing universities complete price flexibility," he says. "Over time, it will result in a significant minority of students accumulating a large and arguably inequitable debt reflecting prices set in a way that is unrelated to the fostering of competition."

Prof. Chapman argues that there are compelling reasons to scrap the system before its introduction. He proposes instead that the government set a limit on the fees universities can charge while giving institutions greater flexibility in deciding the number of places to be offered. The fees limit should be set at the same level as HECS, so all students taking the same course would pay the same charge. This way there would be far less "rent seeking" behaviour by institutions. Under current plans, universities will be able to charge full-fee students whatever they choose.

But Chapman doubts that universities will be influenced by the cap on loans. He implies that vice-chancellors will not be concerned about the debt students incur because they will have no idea how much the students already owe.

United States

Desegregation rollback

US schools marked the 50th anniversary of racially-desegregated classrooms on May 17, but the occasion was tinged with bitterness. Inequality in education persists, with black children doing less well than whites, in schools that are less well funded and increasingly ghettoised.

In a measure of school desegregation’s importance in US history, both President Bush and Democratic challenger John Kerry visited Topeka, Kansas, where in 1954 eight-year-old Linda Brown was forced to attend an all-black school. Linda’s father sued the local board of education for her right to enroll at a white school nearer their home, sparking the Supreme Court’s landmark Brown V. Board ruling.

Designating the Monroe Elementary a US monument, President Bush hailed May 17, 1954, as "a day of justice a long time coming". "It changed America for the better and forever," Bush said. "Fifty years ago today, nine judges announced that they had looked at the Constitution and saw no justification for the segregation and humiliation of an entire race."

The ruling was the main catalyst for the civil rights movement led among others by Martin Luther King, which campaigned for equal voting, employment and housing rights and to end the ‘Jim Crow’ practices of enforcing separate seating and eating places for black people on buses and trains, in cinemas and cafes.

Although it hosted the official ceremonies, the lawsuit in Topeka was actually an amalgam of five separate legal challenges to segregation. The original case which was argued before the Supreme Court, Briggs v. Elliot, came from the South Carolina hamlet of Summerton. Many think the judges elected to frame their ruling around Brown’s Case instead for fear of inflaming the race-based politics of America’s south.

Today, Scott’s Branch high, the school that sparked Briggs V. Elliot, also offers perhaps the most salutary glimpse of the failure of racial integration in America. During segregation it was a rudimentary wooden building. Today the school is housed in a modern low-rise campus. But the vast majority of its 400-plus pupils are black. More than 95 percent of them qualify for free lunches, placing them at or below America’s breadline; the school has been labelled under-performing; and the education authority is locked in a protracted legal wrangle over funding with state education chiefs they accuse of favouring wealthier, predominantly-white schools.

As for virtually all local white children, in a pattern repeated across other rural southern areas, they decamped for inexpensive local private schools, set up to dodge integration, in the sixties and early seventies. Elsewhere in America, ghettoised schools mirror socio-economic disparities, often polarised between wealthy, largely white suburban schools and under-resourced inner-city schools serving ethnic-minority children.

As legally enforced bussing has receded, US schools have steadily re-segregated. A 2003 Harvard study found that 70 percent of blacks attend schools with mainly ethnic-minority pupils, leaving them as racially isolated as they were 35 years ago.


Tendentious textbooks under fire

Biased school textbooks sanctioned by the Pakistani government have bred hatred and increased the isolation of religious minorities, according to a new study. The study has sparked a series of television debates and substantial press coverage across the country (pop. 151 million). However it has been condemned by education minister Zubeida Jalal who says that measures have already been taken to improve the textbooks and teaching guidelines criticised in the report.

Pakistan girl students: distorted history victims
The Subtle Subversion; The State of Curricula and Text Books in Pakistan,
published by the Sustainable Development Policy Institute, describes history teaching as "a collection of falsehoods, fairy tales and plain lies" aimed at glorifying Pakistan’s past and vilifying India. Comments Jalal: "They were looking at the old books, the old curriculum that was put in place 16-18 years earlier. New textbooks are coming out now. You will find there’s much more reality in them."

However, according to the report’s co-author, Abdul Hameed Nayyar, one government curriculum guide for primary-level history published as recently as 2002 says that children should be taught about "the Hindus’ evil designs against Pakistan" in the three wars fought with India.

Muslims make up 97.2 percent of the 151 million population. Christians and Hindus are the largest minority groups with approximately 1 percent of Pakistanis each. The remainder are small communities of Sikhs, Buddhists and Parsis.

Many textbooks highlighted in the report teach children that Pakistan is a country for Muslims and that good citizens must practice Islam. Neglecting to acknowledge the place of minorities, Nayyar says, devalues other children from a young age. "There is a loss of belonging that the students could otherwise have in this society. That is what I think hurts them."

Jalal says revised teaching materials — currently being written — will include a "book of ethics" to give non-Muslims alternative religious education. But she acknowledges that there is a long way to go before the conservative Islamic state is ready for a more multicultural approach to learning for non-Muslims. "We are taking a first step now and I think there will come a time when we’ll be teaching them all (religions) in school."

According to Jalal the welcome given to the Indian test cricket team and their fans was proof that the texts had not engendered hatred towards Indians.


Marketing campaign payout

Amultimillion-euro advertising campaign to market
German universities abroad has paid off, with latest
statistics showing a record number of overseas students. Figures compiled by the German Academic Exchange Service reveal that more than 163,000 international students attended German universities last year, a 63 percent increase over the past six years. Germany lies in third place behind the US and Britain in terms of countries favoured by international students.

The boom in overseas applications to German universities has delighted Edelgard Bulmahn, the education minister, who last year invested €15 million (Rs.76.5 crore) in a marketing campaign. "Students and young scientists come to us because we offer a wide-ranging and differentiated university and research landscape," she says.

Foreign students make up 8.4 percent of Germany’s total student body, an increase of 2.9 percent since 1997. China is the single biggest supplier of students to the country, with 20,000, while Germany’s neighbour Poland is second with 10,000.