Academic handholding: A new low
Leroy Dzenga Features Writer —
Scholars rue the modern way of learning, which seems to be motivated by the need to get results quicker with minimal effort. The trend has not spared Zimbabwe’s academic sector, which has seen the proliferation of service providers who offer “assistance” to college students. The help includes editing,
proofreading and writing of academic work ranging from assignments to dissertations.
While it is not the best academic practice some students have justified their engagement with these service providers. Nancy Ndhlovu (not her real name) a student at a local university explained why they approach their academic work unconventionally.
“I am a working student, I rarely have enough time to attend lectures let alone sit to write assignments,” she said.
Being a mother has also presented further hurdles for her. She has to balance being a mother to a three-year-old set of twins, work and studies. Ndhlovu forgoes her classes because her work and family cannot do without her presence. She is then forced to surrender her academic fate into the hands of professional academic saviours who prey on students.
“I cannot be a worker in absentia, neither can I afford not to keep a close eye on my twins at their age.
“In school, however, my absence does not have effects of equal significance,” Ndhlovu said.
She said her work requires her to travel, and this works against her desire to fulfil her academic obligations.
“I used to miss deadlines during my first year, until a friend told me about the guys who can write assignments for people for a fee,” she said.
Her lecturers’ stern adherence to deadlines pushed her into this habit as she grew tired of negotiating for extensions and losing marks.
“It is better to lose money paying people who write your assignments than to get into the examination with very low coursework marks,” Ndhlovhu said.
In the Zimbabwean higher learning curriculum, assignments and in-class tests contribute to 25 to 30 percent of the semester mark. People like Ndhlovu have seen the rise in backyard enterprises comprising of willing people who promise to write academic work for those who do not have the time or comprehension.
Some even advertise on the internet with taglines which promises things like “emergency dissertations” as well as testimonies for supposed satisfied clients who would have received high marks. Zimbabwe Council of Higher Education condemned these pop up resource centres putting Zimbabwe`s academic integrity under scrutiny.
ZIMCHE information and public relations manager Jonathan Gandari said the only acceptable practice in this regard is when a student submits work they have originated and developed.
“Shopping assignments answers and dissertations is not allowed.
“All university programmes have mechanisms and guidelines on how students should conduct their academic work including assignments, examinations and research,” he said.
The regulations also spell out the penalties should one fail to abide by the academic regulations. Systems are present at local tertiary institutions aimed at reducing and identifying dishonesty.
“The lecturer as the person who gives the assignment and marks, is the first gatekeeper on behalf of the university.
“There is also the chairperson of a department, dean of a faculty, senate to refer to if there are any problems,” Gandari said.
Either the ghostwriters’ subtlety is top notch or universities have been concealing cases of plagiarism from ZIMCHE, as it has not received complains of student cheating.
“This maybe because tertiary institutions have mechanisms to deal with academic offences including cheating,” he said.
Gandari said universities are the first line of defence in plugging out dishonesty and cheating.
“We have encouraged all higher education institutions to have internal quality assurance units to ensure that quality of higher education is improved every day,” he said.
ZIMCHE carries out academic and institutional audits periodically to ensure that set standards are being followed. They have also published and distributed academic standards to all universities which include issues of integrity. Academics have also condemned the clandestine academic culture adding that it was an injustice to diligent students.
Great Zimbabwe University Vice Chancellor Professor Rungano Zvobgo said there are heavy repercussions associated with plagiarism.
“Academic crimes have heavy penalties which may include suspension from the institution and at times even expulsion,” he said.
He said the point of entry in curbing this unethical practice is apprehending the culprits.
“The dishonest students have to be caught to begin with, then and when they are caught they will be subjected to disciplinary hearing,” Professor Zvobgo said.
In the disciplinary committee a student is given a chance to defend themselves with an option to bring a lawyer. If proven beyond doubt, the student can be suspended or expelled.
Professor Zvobgo equated the lazy behaviour to a rot.
“Copying is a cancer, it stops people from reading and it deters them from the inquisitive nature academics are known for,” he said.
The contributing factors, he said, are pure laziness and the desire to get results without experiencing the enabling process. The GZU has dealt with a few cases of dishonesty and plagiarism by suspending the culprits for a specified period of time.
“It is our hope that when they come back, they would have reformed for the better,” Professor Zvobgo said.
Education Coalition Zimbabwe national director Mr Maxwell Rafamoyo said delegating academic work to someone is fraudulent behaviour.
“When a student enrolls for a programme, it is of my understanding that they have the aptitude and time required,” he said.
Mr Rafamoyo says enlisting services of an academic ghostwriter signifies the absence of merit.
“When students employ people to do their work, it suggests two things, that are incompetence or being too busy to give time to their studies, of which both cases are far from plausible,” he said.
The unethical nature of delegating cannot be undermined.
“It is a serious offense from what I know, knowing our academic system I doubt that the rot is widespread. Universities are usually strict,” Mr Rafamoyo said.
He urged colleges to strike the much needed balance between continuous assessment and aptitude tests.
“These people who cut corners are the ones who end up becoming a problem in the work environment.
“Employers end up getting confused as to whether or not a person received training in that field,” he said.
Going through the gruelling origination of academic work gives students inquisitive elements and intellectual curiosity which are a precondition for innovation.
Another revered academic, Dr Wesley Mwatwara, the chairperson in the Department of History at the University of Zimbabwe, slammed the “remote control approach to academic work.”
“If there are people submitting academic work they did not write, it is illegal,” he said.
Dr Mwatara emphasised that consultations are permissible if only they serve the purpose of streamlining completed works.
“World over, people can submit their dissertations for professional editing and proofreading. This is totally different from commissioning someone to craft the entire project for you,” he said.
University degrees have become a status symbol and that has created a market for professional dissertation and assignment writers.
“I think as a country we are currently experiencing the commodification of degrees. People are eager to get these qualifications at all cost, hence the unethical practices,” he said.
He described Zimbabwe as a country obsessed with paper qualifications and the dishonesty is part of the consequence.
“It is the craze for respectability, some think that if they get a college degree they will be more respected in society,” Dr Mwatwara said.
Unemployed people who possess the expertise in various fields are the ones providing spoon feeding services to those who are able to pay.
Dr Mwatwara said although not entirely watertight, measures are in place to try and curb out plagiarized and unoriginal work.
“Usually what happens when a student comes up with a research proposal is that they write and submit to the department.
“The student has to come and present orally on their intended topic of research,” he said.
After satisfying the department heads and academic peers with a lucid defence of their dissertation topic, they are allocated a research supervisor. The supervisor is an expert guide who ensures that the student is working within the parameters of their pitched topic as well as looking for things like plagiarism.
“Sometimes these people who write work for others are very creative and it can be difficult to pick up where the work has been plagiarised,” he said.
They have had to rope in technological solutions to combat dishonesty, especially in the wake of internet prominence.
“Before we even begin reviewing the dissertation, we paste the work in software called Turn It In. This scans for all plagiarized content,” Dr Mwatwara said.
Due to the fact that students consult various academic scholars in their work, only 10 percent of unoriginal content is allowed in an Honours Degree dissertation. Although it seems like an easy way to beat deadlines, delegation and plagiarism of academic work is not without dire consequences.
“The consequences attached to dishonesty are disastrous. In fact, academic plagiarism can get someone expelled from an university. Even on assignments before we even talk of dissertation projects,” Dr Mwatwara said.
Copied assignments can get a zero or deducted marks at the discretion of the lecturer. However, on a dissertation the cardinal rule is that once it is proven beyond doubt that the work is not original it is an imminent fail coupled with a disciplinary hearing.
Another fertile ground for dishonesty is in colleges which use the Block Release system where other students are full time students and others are visiting students. The visiting students are usually employed and have the financial means to get the full time students who would have had more time to familiarise with concepts to write assignments for them.
Academic plagiarism, however, is not unique to our country, recently India was said to be drafting a law which criminalizes academic plagiarism.
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