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“I want a perfect grade and I’ll take the risk”

How efficient is an honour code at universities?

Students who commit fraud should pay a tough price, certain Dutch political parties have asserted in response to recent exam scandals at Dutch hogescholen. At UM, too, several law students have appeared recently before the Examinations Committee accused of copying parts of one another’s papers. They got a warning.


Doekle Terpstra, chair of Hogeschool Inholland, is considering having his students sign an oath of integrity, as is the case at various American universities. By signing an oath, students declare that they will behave honestly in all their academic endeavours. But is this really efficient?

“Yes, I had to sign a code of honour in my first year”, says American exchange student Erica Taylor, from the liberal arts school Trinity College in Connecticut but now studying political science at UM. “And also, before every exam, test or paper, I have to fill in my name, declaring I won’t cheat or plagiarise. If you get caught, you’ll be kicked out. It’s supposed to help, but there are still a lot of people cheating. I think whether you plagiarise or not is a personal choice, regardless of the oath. Some people think: I want a perfect grade and I’ll take the risk.” Taylor says she herself doesn’t cheat, and is irritated by cheaters who get a good grade without the hard work.

“I don’t think an oath like that would have a major influence”, says Heleen Vliex, student adviser at the Maastricht law faculty. “I assume in the US they see an oath as a kind of turning point, to make students conscious of a new way of life: your pre-university education has ended and now you’re in an academic setting with other rules.”

Vliex gives people the benefit of the doubt, “but with certain question techniques you’ll quickly find out if there’s an intention to commit fraud. It’s difficult for first-year students in particular. They’re in a learning process. Banning them from taking an exam for the rest of the year, for example, is too harsh in my opinion. On the other hand, second- or third-year students should know better.”

Taylor disagrees. “In high school you got away with cheating, but I feel like you should know at university.”

There was no honour code at Columbia Law School when she was studying there, but American Tamara Lewis had to sign the rules and regulations set down in the student handbook, including that she wouldn’t plagiarize. Lewis, now a PhD candidate at UM’s Department of International and European Law, can imagine that law schools in particular have an honour code. “You have to prevent students who cheat or plagiarise from becoming future lawyers.” But she doesn’t know if introducing an honour code at all faculties will have the same effect. Sometimes, she thinks, it may even cause too much pressure and panic among students.

“In the US, and I imagine also in some Dutch programmes, there is a great degree of pressure to graduate with an excellent grade point average. That makes it very tempting to cheat, plagiarise and even hack into the grading system. It would be interesting to see if the honour codes make any difference when you feel your chances of getting a job after graduation are dependent upon your grade point average. I suspect not.”



Wendy Degens



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