Th, 1.06.2023
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Aaviksoo: fraud more widespread than we think

, summer reporter
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Photo: Peeter Langovits

Minister of education and research Jaak Aaviksoo believes that, in order to uproot fraud from universities, mindsets have to be altered first – students will have to develop intolerance towards copying and plagiarism, standing ready to turn the cheats in.

Teacher Peeter Lorents has pointed out the problem of universities often producing people unable to enter labour market. How serious, in your estimation, is the problem of academic fraud in Estonia?

I think we have two problems here. We have to consider that while, in Soviet times, 20 per cent of youth entered universities, now this percentage is nearing 50. And the average capability of that 50 per cent appears to be somewhat lower than of the former 20. A certain backlash was to be expected.

On the other hand, the quality problem in higher education is serious. One part of which is academic fraud, the need to fight it.

Mr Lorents describes the problem of copying based on the IT College example. How widespread is that, state wise?

It is very difficult to assess the scope of academic fraud. This is covert crime, permit me to say; even if, legally speaking, this is not criminal behaviour. But, on the basis of my own experience at the university, I dare say it is much more widespread than we would like to think.

How did you [as teacher] tackle these problems?

It is very hard to assess one’s own activities, in this regard. I personally always trust oral conversations most, face to face with the student. For each person’s true level and the depth of their knowledge is best revealed by close talk. Then one may detect the presence or absence of knowledge.

Would it be prudent to increase the share of oral exams?

On the one hand, surely – in order to go deep. However, there are two problems with oral examinations. First: they are much more time-consuming, and therefore more expensive. Secondly, it is difficult to guarantee objectivity with oral exams. Today, students are apt to go to court to get their rights; when no evidence can be presented to the court, the judges take the weaker party’s side.

Personally, you were connected to the University of Tartu both in Soviet times and after our regained independence. May it be said that the students’ mentality, with such complaints being filed, has changed?

Surely in Soviet times the teachers’ powers were considerably greater and the options to argue slimmer – I know from personal experience that it was really hard. Now that we have rule of law, all have the right to have recourse to courts to defend their rights.

There is, however, the definite dark side to this. Proving one’s academic aptness in court is no solution. A diploma gained that way will hardly carry the same value with employers than an honest exam.

Would it be prudent, then, to find some sort of a middle ground between the Soviet system and the current one? Now, there seems to be an overabundance of rights, and then there was almost a total lack of them...

The central issue is how to organise reasonable appeal procedures. Of course, a teacher may be subjective as well. To say nothing about those who, for personal reasons, may have a negative attitude. Against this, students have to be protected. But should that be abused, we again have imbalances.

Still, the most serious aspect of fraud is the students’ and teachers’ attitudes: how largely are copying, plagiarism and other forms of academic skulduggery tolerated. That is the heart of the matter – rather a cultural issue, not a legal one.

You personally have stated that Mr Lorents drawing a line is welcome. Am I getting it right: the ministry is taking the academic fraud problem seriously?

The ministry definitely is taking this seriously, and always has. But this cannot be turned around by the ministry’s efforts alone. The main change needs to happen amongst the students themselves.

Here, we would do well to learn from the American universities – the most competitive system of higher education of the world... In the US, fellow students will just not tolerate fraud of any sort. They take it as if somebody were stealing from them; this is totally condemned and such behaviour is reported. But in Estonia, and not here only, some skilled cheats even tend to get the limelight – in a positive sense. Well, that is some really bad attitude.

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