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Why many international students get a failing grade in academic integrity

Canadian universities are coming to terms with a disproportionate number of international students being accused of and facing penalties for plagiarism and exam cheating.

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University students break the rules for a host of reasons – some make a bad decision under pressure at 3 a.m., others insist they were just helping a classmate. But at some Canadian schools, an alarming number of the accused share one characteristic: they came from abroad to study here.

The disproportionate number of international students accused of plagiarism or cheating on exams is raising red flags in university administrations and legal aid offices. It also raises questions as to whether schools should be doing more for stressed-out foreign students who are grappling with new educational standards, often while coping with a language barrier.

With governments and universities across Canada increasing their efforts to recruit more students from abroad, and some opening branch campuses abroad, there is a growing desire to understand why so many new arrivals are getting a failing grade in academic integrity.

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Most Canadian universities do not track academic offences by a student's country of origin, which makes definitive measures of the problem difficult. But those on the front lines of the universities' support services and legal aid clinics are certain that a significantly higher proportion of international students are getting in trouble.

The imbalance is striking at Downtown Legal Services, the University of Toronto legal aid clinic that assists students charged with academic offences, said staff lawyer Karen Bellinger.

"I would say, anecdotally, that well over 50 per cent of [clients]are international students," she said. This group makes up about 12 per cent of the total student body at U of T.

After perceiving a similar trend, the University of Windsor began keeping track three years ago. A 2008-2009 report from Academic Integrity Officer Danielle Istl shows one in 82 international students was accused of academic misconduct, compared with one in 300 domestic students. Both numbers decreased the next year, but the percentage of international students accused was still more than three times higher.

International students facing discipline most commonly say they were reared in drastically different learning styles, burdened with expectations from families that have invested heavily in them, or lacked the confidence to shape and convey ideas in English. Some cheat for the same reasons as anyone – a lack of understanding or attention to what is allowed, especially in grey areas like group work, or a desire to boost flagging marks – but schools increasingly realize cultural barriers can put them at greater risk of academic dishonesty, intentional or not.

Karan, who did not want his last name published, is a recent international graduate of U of T's Faculty of Arts and Science, and admits he was let off with a warning over apparent plagiarism after copying text from lecture slides word-for-word in a paper. In India, he had relied on reproducing the words of his teachers and rote learning to succeed in India, and was taken aback by the emphasis placed on critical analysis and proper citation of sources in Canada.

"Basically [the professor]said I didn't cite at all," said Karan. "Back home, we listen to our teachers, and basically mug everything they say. The more you write your answers exactly the way they say it, the better chance you have of getting an A."

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Then there's the weight of expectations carried by many students who have crossed continents and oceans to study, paying high international fees.

"I think most students don't plan on cheating ... it just happens," Karan said. "Often times, parents back home will be spending a lot of money to send you abroad, and the hope is that with this Canadian degree, you will get a better job back home or sponsor your parents to move."

A 2006 study published by the Higher Education Academy in the U.K. found that more than 60 per cent of the international students surveyed, particularly those from some Asian countries, believed that failure to use the same wording as a teacher or "authority figure" in an assignment would be the same as criticizing them. It found these students are not "persistent plagiarizers" but suggested it was easier to detect plagiarism in their work than in the work of native English speakers.

Most universities consider any presentation of another person's words or ideas as one's own without crediting the original source to be plagiarism.

After arriving at U of T from Taiwan, Hannah Liu found she and her friends often felt they lacked the vocabulary and writing skills to be confident paraphrasing research material.

"If [students]don't know how to rewrite the sentence, they probably think, 'I'll just copy and paste it,'" she said.

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Niraj Maharaj encounters this explanation often in his role as Student Rights and Support Services Co-ordinator at the York Federation of Students despite York University's mandatory English proficiency test for students educated in another language.

"A number of students have mentioned that the test doesn't really register what a university-level essay would look like," focusing instead on basic grammar and sentence structure, Mr. Maharaj said.

Virtually all universities have writing tutorial services, but they tend to be voluntary, and many students don't take advantage of them until they run into trouble.

"The services can be there, but some people don't have the courage [to ask for help] or it could be an issue of pride," said Kevin Williams, a Carleton University student from St. Lucia who sought tutoring when his first paper was deemed "on the borderline" of academic honesty.

McGill University's Legal Information Clinic is drafting a report for the university administration. At U of T, Ms. Bellinger said she has raised the alarming numbers with the Governing Council, and its Anti-Racism and Cultural Diversity Office is also aware. But a U of T spokesperson said, "to the best of our knowledge" Downtown Legal Services has not referred the issue to either body, and the university does not plan to track academic offences by country of origin.

Instead, it has initiatives intended to guide all students – from embedding advisers in colleges to holding workshops to train faculty and instructors. Still, Ms. Bellinger feels most students' training "isn't that extensive."

Many schools, such as Windsor, have special orientation for international students, but there is a growing push to extend informational programs later into the first term, when students are less "caught up in getting their lives in order," said Rose Faddoul, counsel at the University of Windsor's Community Legal Aid.

And Windsor may also copy a measure other schools like Concordia University already use: a short, online academic integrity quiz every student takes when registering for courses.

"There's lots we can do," Ms. Istl said. "The challenge, though, is time and resources."

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About the Author
Banking Reporter

James Bradshaw is banking reporter for the Report on Business. He covered media from 2014 to 2016, and higher education from 2010 to 2014. Prior to that, he worked as a cultural reporter for Globe Arts, and has written for both the Toronto section and the editorial page. More

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