Academic Cheating Markets and Global Merit

Cheating students have created a vibrant black market in assignments, as covered in this recent piece, and numerous others over the last few years. A common academic observation is that cheating students are following the outsourcing logic of the neoliberal university by buying their assignments off, eg, a well-read Kenyan graduate needing some extra cash.

Well, perhaps. I feel like those who identify this market as neoliberal have not really been paying attention: what neoliberals really love to see is not just markets, but clear established rules, merit promotion and global trading. The black market for assignments is far too grubby and ad hoc.

In a well-functioning market, outsourcing vendors are only rewarded for the value they add, and students cheating violate all manner of contractual terms. Following the neoliberal logic more rigorously, this could be a valuable market discovery mechanism for finding talented, financially needy scholars from non-traditional backgrounds, and cutting out low-value middlemen. The university could offer recognized credit on a pro-rata basis in any subject where you can prove you really did the work for someone else. If enough credit was accumulated, vendor scholars could earn a full degree.

Penalties for cheating would still apply, to the cheater, for failing to add value. Sanction and expulsion could be reserved for the worst cases. A better approach would be cancelling credit for the subjects where cheating was employed, and doubling the cost of credit points obtained towards their degree, retrospectively from the date of cheating, as needed. This would recognize global talent while reducing plagiarism demand, by increasing downside risk for the enrolled student.

Complete equivalence to existing degrees might reduce their value in the reputational market. To differentiate, any award achieved using such credit could have the suffix “by Stealth” applied, as in “Bachelor of Science with Honours Class IIA by Stealth”. The “by Stealth” suffix could even accrue a certain “school of hard knocks” cachet over time, sought out by companies who value both talent and street cunning.

It’s what Milton Friedman would have wanted. I am available for lectures and consultancy on this topic, at forward-looking universities, at reasonable market rates.

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