Many students in the UAE find it easy to justify cheating and report that it occurs quite often at university, recent research has revealed.

Dr Donald McCabe, professor of management and global business at Rutgers University, USA, presented these findings at Zayed University's (ZU) recent annual convocation where he was a guest speaker. He is the founder and first president of the Centre for Academic Integrity comprising almost 400 colleges and universities in the United States.

More than 2,600 students from ZU, the Higher Colleges of Technology and UAE University participated in McCabe's survey that gauges student attitudes to cheating. He compared the results to 80,000 US student responses to the same survey but conceded that he was viewing the UAE education landscape "through a Westerner's lens".

Course difficulty justifies cheating

"Unfortunately, a number of students at all three schools justify cheating by noting how difficult some of their courses are – after all, it's the faculty's fault for using difficult materials and tests," McCabe said. "For example, if they feel the work or the teacher in a particular course or programme is too hard or demanding, some believe it's okay to take shortcuts, even if that involves cheating."

The academic also found that male students cheated more on tests, while females cheated more on written work. In addition, communications, information technology, engineering and business students cheated the most, in that order.

Abdullah Julfar, a business information student at Dubai Men's College, said cheating happened less at university than it did at school. "Some of the students say it's okay to share information. It happens a lot during tests," he said.

American University in Dubai student Natalie Sulaiman said cheating was not common since students face dismissal if caught. "It's a major offence and that keeps students from plagiarising. We also have an honour code which we sign every time we submit an assignment or project," she said.

McCabe said there were more similarities than differences between students in the UAE and their peers in the United States and across the globe when it came to their views on plagiarism and cheating.

However, there was problematic "helping behaviour" that existed on UAE campuses. Students reported feeling pressured to help their friends and there is a strong reluctance to report cheating they may have observed, McCabe said.

Honour codes increase academic integrity

The research findings come as ZU is finalising a code of honour to encourage academic integrity among its students.

McCabe said cultivating academic integrity among UAE students would ultimately enhance the country's standing in the world community such as its transparency ranking on the international Corruptions Perceptions Index where it is currently ranked 34th.

He added that an improvement to 25th place was possible and would make the UAE the highest-ranking Arab country, moving it ahead of Qatar and only a few places behind western European countries such as Germany, France and Ireland.

In his address, ZU Vice-president Dr Sulaiman Al Jasem said that McCabe had "given us a much deeper understanding of matters relating to academic honesty and integrity".

"I know your remarks will resonate through the discussions of the next few days and continue to provide guidance and challenge us during the entire academic year," he said.

Grey zones

At the American University of Sharjah there is an academic code that explains the "black and white" cases of cheating, which are a serious violation said AUS's director of graduate and undergraduate programmes and research Kevin Mitchell.

However, Mitchell also mentioned some "grey zones" of cheating that students were perhaps unaware of.

He said a study on academic integrity conducted by the College of Engineering last year found that cheating itself was not a problem but there was a grey area in terms of collaboration on homework assignments.

"Sometimes there are cases that are not severe enough to warrant going through the process of review but may still result in a conversation because a student has done something he did not understand was a violation," Mitchell said.

To encourage academic integrity students sign statements when they join the university. "Students have some rights and responsibilities and there is also a formal process of review," Mitchell said.

Currently there are campus-wide initiatives at AUS to help students develop "internal mechanisms" to deal with cheating. Students are educated about the matter during orientation, an academic integrity taskforce is being set up, faculties have drawn up their own discipline specific academic codes and the university is also looking at an ethics requirement in which every student takes one ethics course.

The consequences for outright cheating are severe, ranging from expulsion to penalties that include being failed on a specific assignment or withdrawn from a course.

Although Mitchell could not cite figures for student cheating he said he saw between 10 and 15 appeal cases each year.

Academic honour codes

What is an honour code?
An honour code or honour system is a set of rules or principles governing a community based on a set of rules or ideals that define what constitutes honourable behaviour within that community. The use of an honour code depends on the idea that people within the community can be trusted to act honourably. Those who violate the code can be subject to various sanctions, including expulsion from the institution. Honour codes are most commonly used at universities to deter academic dishonesty.

Sample honour codes:

"On my honour I have neither given nor received any unauthorised aid on this assignment."
– Rice University, USA

"Under code of honour, I certify when completing this work I did not give nor receive any type of help, outside that specified by the professor."
– Tecnológico de Monterrey

"As a Member of the William & Mary community I pledge, on my Honour, not to lie, cheat, or steal in either my academic or personal life. I understand that such acts violate the Honour Code and undermine the community of trust of which we are all stewards."
– The College of William and Mary, USA

"I pledge my honour that I have not violated the honour code during this examination."
– Princeton University, USA

"No member of the Caltech community shall take unfair advantage of any other member of the Caltech community."
– California Institute of Technology
— Source:

Is cheating prevalent at universities?

"Yes, some students don't want to work hard."
— Sarah Mujeeb, accounting, University of Wollongong Dubai (UOWD)

"I assume there must be cheating; it's worldwide."
— Arsalan Choudhary, mechanical engineering (HWU Dubai Campus)

"Yes, during exams because of last minute studying."
— Diana Bodhanwala, finance, UOWD

"It's my first year here but I don't think it's prevalent."
— Mubarak Rafaqat, Degree Entry Programme (D.E.P.) engineering (HWU Dubai campus)

"It can be done across countries as time zones change for the same exams."
— Fahad Khan, electronics engineering (Heriot Watt University Dubai Campus)

"I know students who communicate questions of exams across countries."
— Nipuni, D.E.P. engineering (HWU Dubai Campus)

"Students in the UK could be given the questions of standard exams taken in other countries."
— Jasim Qadoos, D.E.P. engineering (HWU Dubai Campus)

"I still haven't seen it around."
— Robin C. John, D.E.P. (HWU Dubai campus)