Cheatland: Dispatches from the front lines of academic deceit

Innovative deployment of the latest anti-cheating technology as submitted by Coconuts reader “Ploiice Julius Tooddumz”


One year, in an International Film class I taught at Thammasat University, a student of mine wrote the following about “Chungking Express,” the widely revered film by Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai:

“…its slender, two-tiered plot links love affairs that happen largely by accident, the film’s real interest seems to lie in raffish affectation.”

Since I have never used the expression “raffish affectation” in my life, I wondered how my student, who was already in danger of failing and whose emails to me were usually undecipherable, could come up with that. Then her paper went on to say, “…‘Chungking Express’ and ‘Eating Out’ will be shown this evening at 6 as part of the New York Film Festival.”  Seriously.

It’s no news to anyone who has lived in Thailand – especially if they have ever taught here or know someone who has – that there is a cheating problem at all levels of education in the kingdom.

Not that it’s new or uniquely Thai.

In September, Harvard University’s newspaper, The Crimson, reported that 10 percent of incoming freshman class admitted to cheating on exams before university, and another 42 percent admitted to having cheated on minor assignments. On a larger scale, a Rutgers University professor surveyed 24,000 students in the United States in 2008, finding that 95 percent of them had cheated in some way.

Sometimes an honest person might have a moment of panic. Some are just lazy. Others may blame the ever-increasing competition to get ahead. But at some point it seems just about all of us have cheated. The difference is that in Thailand cheating and plagiarism just don’t really seem to be discouraged very strongly. And in other nations, the consequences for it often end the careers of students, professionals and academics.

Since 2006, I have lectured at Thammasat University in the Faculty of Journalism and Mass Communication. When I first began, I was shocked at the level of rampant plagiarism I saw, given the reputation of Thammasat’s journalism program.

When I confronted students about their incessant copying, I was told that it was not usually taken seriously in their high schools (with some exceptions), and that their former teachers didn’t object or notice when students would copy-and-paste their answers. Since I was brought up in a culture where plagiarism is a literary crime with serious consequences, I issued a zero-tolerance policy and the problem improved. However, despite repeated dire warnings issued to students from the first class of the semester – I even make them sign a pledge each term – academic dishonesty still has not been eradicated in my classroom.

For my Won Kar-Wai fan, only a terse Googling was needed to source her exquisite prose to the New York Times. Investigation closed.

Sometimes the case is less airtight. One student actually gobbled her cheat sheet upon getting caught during a final exam. I have found notes stashed behind toilets in the men’s room – the long bathroom breaks during tests made it kind of obvious – and now I ask female proctors to check the ladies’ room for cheat sheets.

To get relevant statistics for this piece, I asked four leading universities for their policies on cheating, but only Thammasat, where I work, gave me any statistics. Mahidol replied by sending me their policies on academic dishonesty, but not their statistics, and Chulalongkorn (where I’ve taught previously) and ABAC Universities simply didn’t respond after I made phone calls and sent a few emails.

Mahidol states that academic dishonesty can result in failure of a subject, or all subjects in a trimester, academic suspension for a trimester or outright dismissal. However, since Mahidol didn’t provide details on any specific numbers of students cheating, there is no way of knowing how strictly this is enforced.

Thammasat did provide statistics of students who were caught cheating in 2012. Out of the more than 30,000 students who attend Thammasat, 51 were caught. The highest total came from the Chinese studies program, where 13 cheaters were caught. Nine were caught in the undergraduate engineering program. The breakdown skewed 35 women to 16 men, so either men are cheating less at Thammasat, or they are cheating better and not getting caught.

Of the students caught cheating, one was suspended for two academic years, 14 were suspended for one year, and 10 for one semester. The rest were given probation or warnings. None were expelled as would be a likely outcome at top schools in other nations. By comparison, Japan almost sent someone to jail for cheating a couple of years ago.

In my classes over the years, I have failed students almost every semester for plagiarism and other academic dishonesty, and a few have been suspended for a semester or a year for cheating during a final exam, and some have dropped out from the program. None have ever been expelled although a few deserved it, in my opinion.

I took an unscientific poll of 58 students in my current Basic News Reporting class, asked them what percentage of students they thought cheated at university, and estimates ranged from 2 percent to 50 percent.

One student blamed lax enforcement and runaway nepotism: “It is way too easy to get away with it. People who are supervising the exams are pretty much doing nothing other than playing with iPhones [and] if the student is the son or daughter of someone really powerful, it is likely they will get away with it.”

A Chinese exchange student at Thammasat stated that his high school in China heavily punished cheaters, but again, those coming from powerful families get off. When asked whether Thammasat’s enforcement was strong enough, the Chinese student responded, “Absolutely not. A lot of students in the Bachelor of Economics program cheated. I know because I took a course there, but none of them were punished.”

Wanwarang Maisuwong, the manager for Thammasat’s international journalism program where I teach, used to be a student in the program and to this day she is still bothered about a fellow student from her class who cheated regularly and went on to receive first-class honors. At some universities outside Thailand, if you witness someone cheating, you can face a penalty even if you haven’t cheated yourself. However, Wanwarang chose not to say anything, despite her irritation.

“I was scared and I did not want to make enemies,” she candidly explained. “Sometimes when people know the truth they are expected to be kind enough to let it go. That is considered the ‘Thai’ way.”

Unfortunately, this “kindness” may be hurting Thailand in the long run, seeing that in a recent test from the English Language Assessment, Thai students came in last place amongst Southeast Asian nations in English language abilities.

Thai students who go to study abroad also may be left unprepared for the rigor of other universities. Some end up relying on getting others to do work for them, a method of cheating that isn’t easy to identify.

One recent graduate from Chulalongkorn University, who has exceptional English skills and now works for a well-known international company, first started making money during university and after graduation by copy-editing papers for students who were studying abroad. One time, a particularly lazy student asked him to write the paper from scratch, and he did so for THB70,000. He said he was disgusted by the experience, though, and vowed not to do it again.

He now claims to be decidedly against cheating, yet said he saw his share at Chula. “Thai students are good at cheating especially when it comes to multiple choice, they have really good eyesight. Stupid people are getting in [to Chulalongkorn] because of this.”

Do fellow Thais share his views though?

“No,” he replied. “They just want a good grade.”


Joel Gershon is a journalism lecturer at Thammasat University. He is currently working on a documentary film entitled “Cirque du Cambodia” about two young Cambodians who dream of performing with Cirque Du Soleil.


Feature photo image: Hariadhi

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One thought on “Cheatland: Dispatches from the front lines of academic deceit

  1. Plenty of teachers in universities and schools in Thailand love to talk about Thai kids cheating and just how outrageous it all is. But then theyre quite happy to take advantage the of the Thai culture of looking the other way when it comes to the soapy massages, pot-smoking and such. But yeah, that exam cheating – just terrible, just terrible – "Nana plaza please, taxi".

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