New Auckland University exam cheating claims as staff condemn 'embarrassing' decision to host them online and unsupervised

A university spokesperson said tutors had been told to be "extra vigilant" of academic misconduct.
A university spokesperson said tutors had been told to be "extra vigilant" of academic misconduct. Photo credit: Newshub.

The University of Auckland's decision to let students take exams online and without supervision has been condemned by staff as "rushed" and "downright embarrassing" amid fresh cheating claims.

The decision was taken earlier this year to shift exams off the university campus and online in an effort to provide certainty to students who may have been affected by COVID-19 alert level shifts.

But an Auckland University student last month told Newshub they estimate the majority of those in their programme were sharing answers and pooling knowledge on internet chat rooms during their exams, as staff were unable to keep tabs on them.

A university spokesperson at the time told Newshub they'd found no evidence of cheating during exams and had been told of just a single allegation, which was being investigated.

However staff members across multiple faculties have since told Newshub their students have raised concerns about cheating, with one even told agencies in China and South Korea had been hired to take exams on students' behalf.

Staff say they are concerned about the integrity of the exam results and how allegations of cheating are affecting the university's reputation.

But they're angry the university opted to allow students to take the assessments without surveillance in the first place, and argue online exams should only have been considered as a last resort.

The university declined Newshub's latest request for comment, but previously said it would "investigate ways to ensure that the highest standards of academic integrity are maintained".

New exam cheating allegations

Dr Peter Wills, an academic staff member in the Department of Physics, says the lack of exam surveillance this year has been mitigated to some extent by making many exams 'open book-lite'.

Such an approach allows students to access learning material during their exams, but the questions are framed in such a way that having access to it doesn't bring them any great advantage. This prevents students from simply finding the answers online and writing them down.

However it doesn't stop students from colluding on the likes of Discord or Facebook Messenger to discuss the best way to tackle a question, which a student last month claimed was something the majority of those in their programme were doing.

"These final exams are worth up to 50 percent of our final grade for these papers. The cheating is prolific - more than half of the students in my papers are cheating in some form. I believe it's unacceptable," the anonymous whistleblower told Newshub.

Staff at the University of Auckland have condemned the decision to host exams online and unsupervised as "rushed" and "downright embarrassing".
Staff at the University of Auckland have condemned the decision to host exams online and unsupervised as "rushed" and "downright embarrassing". Photo credit: Getty Images

"We're really hopeful that the examinations office will change the process for next semester and next year… that they won't do this again, or that they'll follow suit with other countries where they're recording them on Zoom or with an audio and video [feed]."

Dr Wills says he'd heard from organisers of a few courses that their students had raised suspicions and made reports about this sort of cheating, which he believes to be occurring mostly in large classes and at first- and second-year level.

A teaching staff member from a different department, who wished to remain anonymous, said students had told him their peers were engaging in online call sessions in which they take the final exam together while discussing the content.

"Because they don't all have to be in a classroom in front of a proctor, they just don't see it as problematic and they know they can get away with it - so they do it," he said.

But the alleged dishonesty extends beyond students discussing answers amongst themselves. The staff member told Newshub they'd also heard of students hiring agencies outside the university, from the likes of China and South Korea, to take the final exams on their behalf.

"The students have somehow been contacted by these different organisations that are offering those services for payment."

He worries the ease of cheating could have a negative impact on the knowledge and ability of students who are progressing into the latter years of their degrees.

"Students will do well on exams - better than they're actually capable of doing - and then they'll progress to the next level without having the foundation in order to actually do well," he said.

"A lot of our curriculum is cascading; you need the foundation to build up to the next one. So if that's not happening, it's going to lead to more problems - not just for us as instructors, but for the students. That's what we care about the most."

Dr Wills says he's personally caught a student using Chegg - a learning platform that allows students to quickly access answers and solutions to academic questions - during an exam in the past.

"It's a place where you put up your [question] and you subscribe. So you're paying for it and you can get an answer in real time. And then other people who are subscribers to that can see it and they can report that it's been done."

The declaration University of Auckland students have to agree to before each online exam.
The declaration University of Auckland students have to agree to before each online exam. Photo credit: Supplied

A study carried out in 2020 found the number of questions asked and answered on Chegg had skyrocketed by 196 percent during the university exam period of April-August 2020, compared to the same period the year before.

The suggestion was that universities across the world moving their exams online in response to COVID-19 restrictions had increased the opportunities for students to cheat.

"Given the number of exam-style questions, it appears highly likely that students are using this site as an easy way to breach academic integrity by obtaining outside help," lead author Thomas Lancaster wrote.

Chegg now has an honour code in place to prevent cheating and has invested in a new programme that allows universities to submit questions in advance so they can be blocked during exams.

Dr Wills says in the case of the University of Auckland student using Chegg to cheat, the company disclosed their IP address which allowed the university to track the student down.

'None of us want this to be happening'

The anonymous staff member says while it's fine the university decided it wasn't comfortable hosting in-person exams due to COVID-19, the current online system is "rushed" and doesn't protect the integrity of the assessments.

"It's given students the opportunity to cheat because we haven't had the time to set up the technology that would stop that from happening," he said.

"Staff are concerned about the integrity of our personal exams and the university as a whole. None of us want this to be happening - we all see it as problematic. It's just everything has been happening so quickly."

Dr Wills says he doesn't know whether the university is willingly turning a blind eye to cheating, but it's clear they chose to go down the online route and didn't "pursue the steps needed to ensure the integrity of the exams".

"I think [holding exams in person] would have been a much better strategy this time, because in the event we could have done it. It would have been better to take that option and then have a contingency plan to hold the exams online [if the COVID-19 alert level had gone up]," he said.

In an email sent to fellow staff members after Newshub's initial article was published, Dr Wills described the way the University of Auckland operated its online assessments and exams as "downright embarrassing".

"As a result of the exam format, private communication can freely occur on Facebook, Discord, WeChat and other platforms during the exam," he wrote.

"None of the cheating methods reported come as a surprise as these were methods already reported by academic staff to the University last year. The non invigilated, online exams went ahead nevertheless."

Dr Wills says future exams need to have some form of surveillance to put a stop to it.

"I haven't looked into what systems there are for actually invigilating online exams. Whatever they are, they have to be pretty intrusive," he told Newshub.

"Like they have to require the students to have a camera on their computer, which is switched on, for example. There must be something better than a free for all... there's got to be something that's better than nothing."

In his email, Dr Wills also took issue with a university spokesperson quoted in the article, who told Newshub teaching staff had been urged to be "extra vigilant" in light of the allegations of misconduct.

"[It's] passing the buck. What should these staff do? Create fake accounts to mix and mingle with other fake accounts online in the afternoons and evenings during the exam period?

"Do all this extra out-of-hours work while performing their 'usual' daytime tasks?  Visit student quarters to prevent organised cheating in person?  How should they be "extra vigilant" about student phone communication during exams?"

He said about 40 people responded to his email in support of his anger at teaching staff being asked to shoulder this increased workload during the exam period, particularly given they are "already overloaded" and often lower-paid staff members.

Newshub contacted the University of Auckland for a response, but a spokesperson said it could not comment further.

However in response to Newshub's initial request for comment in June, the spokesperson said the university had launched an investigation after a student contacted a staff member with concerns about planned academic misconduct during an online exam.

"Consequently, tutors were warned to be extra vigilant regarding academic misconduct in light of these allegations. The university has mechanisms to detect cheating and will follow up and penalise where there is evidence of breaches.  

"While we are not aware of cheating having taken place in these online exams, we will be investigating the allegation.  

"Students are fully aware of their responsibilities around academic integrity. They are advised of the consequences of breaching these throughout their courses, and reminded again on their exam papers.

"Last year, the COVID situation meant exams were largely brought online and we have continued with this practice in some programmes to provide students with certainty about the assessment process in light of potential changes in COVID alert levels.

"We will continue to investigate ways to ensure that the highest standards of academic integrity are maintained and the small number of students failing to uphold these do not adversely impact on others."