Unisa struggling to get a grip on exam cheating

In recent years Unisa has noted an uptick in cheating cases, with the 2020 move to online exams triggering a spike but the university is struggling to get a grip on various issues related to cheating.

FILE: Students outside Unisa's Sunnyside campus. Picture: Eyewitness News

JOHANNESBURG - A tutor who admits to helping students from the University of South Africa (Unisa) cheat, says they’re turning to people like him out of desperation.

The biggest university in the country and on the continent, Unisa is struggling to get a grip on various issues related to cheating.

Last year, Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande commissioned Professor Themba Mosiato to conduct an independent investigation into Unisa’s affair. And in the report, which was released last month, Mosiato recommended it be placed under full administration. Alongside the raft of governance issues the scathing report lays bare, were various issues related to cheating, including concerns around an increase in academic fraud, unreliable proctoring systems and student data being leaked to spammers offering dodgy services including exam “guidance”.


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According to the report, in recent years Unisa has noted an uptick in cheating cases, with the 2020 move to online exams triggering a spike.

"The latest figures of student disciplinary statistics, provided to me on 6 December 2022 is a total of 10,954 cases of academic misconduct for the 2022 examination period. The report explains: The increase in disciplinary cases is caused by students enlisting the help of third parties to complete examinations, assignments, or any coursework. Students are paying for services to complete an exam or assignment."

It’s not known how many of these cases have been proved and there are concerns around the reliability of the proctoring tools used for online exams.

But to what extent people are taking advantage aside, Emma (not her real name), who’s in her second year of studying a Bachelor of Arts degree but asked that her identity be withheld, says online exams have made it easier to cheat.

"I wish I could say they haven’t because it is a lot easier to study online. But there are a lot more ways to get creative if you do need to get through easily, if you need to cheat essentially," she said.

Tutor Jake, meanwhile, who spoke on condition of anonymity, admits to doing students’ assignments "with" them.

"They do the assignment and then they come to class and then we do it together. We do the corrections and whatever and when the student submits the assignment, already it’s okay. The chances of that person passing the assignment is very high," he said, adding that when students are in a crunch, they also sometimes skip trying it themselves the first time around.

He acknowledges it’s wrong but says at one stage he had 150 to 200 clients, paying at least R300 each, a semester; and that the demand’s created by desperate students, who, at Unisa specifically, he adds don’t get enough support,

Professor Wayne Hugo of the University of KwaZulu Natal’s School of Education said while it’s not a justification, this is an issue with distance learning.

"When students are getting their tutors and paying a little money, or not, to get them to help write their assignments that's partly got to do with the fact that they’re doing it by distance and the support systems in distance learning aren't as strong," he said.

With more and more universities around the country making the move to online assessments now, Jake says this trend isn’t limited to Unisa.

And Hugo agrees.

"The explosion in these kinds of factory shops where people who know the curriculum or know the subject stuff or the answers are producing stuff for students, it’s happening all the way from first year to doctorate level across the country," he said.

There are also concerns around a data leak at Unisa that has seen student information finding its way to spammers peddling exam "guidance" and other suspicious services over text for years now.

Eyewitness News responded to one of these texts and received automated responses explaining how, for between R600 and R1,800, the answers to the exam could be WhatsApped to us and providing details on how to get around the proctoring. Whether the person on the other end would have made good on the offer, is unknown.

The independent report released last month shows the university’s been aware of this data leak for at least "some time" but has failed to address it.

And it highlights that in terms of the Protection of Personal Information Act, Unisa risks "significant financial penalties" from the Information Regulator.

Emma says she’s received around 40 of these texts since she started studying last year, adding it makes her highly uncomfortable against the backdrop of the other information Unisa holds on her.

"They have my ID number, my home address. They have all this information. And I'm really not comfortable that this information is just floating around and apparently is easily accessible," she said,

"It’s been incredibly frustrating and it just feels such a violation … I don’t feel valued in the university and that's why this is so angering for me."

Jake, meanwhile, says he’s tried to figure out how this information is leaked but can’t.

"I think it’s a highly discreet area, whoever gets them … People who get the database, I would like to believe they keep it highly confidential. Why? Because they don’t want competition. If it’s me who is sending the messages, I will not give it to anyone," he said.

"Automatically, when a person has a database like that one it’s instant cash because obviously, people are going to call you … So it will be very easy considering Unisa has got thousands of students."

Unisa did not respond to questions around the report but says it’s confident in the measures it’s taken to identify a growing number of cheats.

"The university has taken proactive measures and continues to use proctoring tools such as the Invigilator App, Moodle, IRIS and Turnitin to secure academic integrity. These tools serve the purpose of authenticating identities and identifying any suspicious behaviour that may compromise the credibility of students’ responses during examinations," it said.

"While this concerning behaviour is evidence of a general moral decay in society, the university’s Disciplinary Office remains successful with its endeavours of protecting academic integrity through the harsh sanctions provided to students who have been identified. Over 95% of students who have sat for their disciplinary proceedings have been found guilty of academic misconduct."

It also says it "does communicate with its students via the student portal and uses such to alert students about scams and related fraudulent messages" and further that “these messages are sent to the investigations teams within Unisa and the SAPS. The University has taken legal action against perpetrators to refrain from purporting to be doing business on behalf of the university. Further legal action is underway. The University has ICT controls in place to address this issue including, blocking some of the spam messages from landing on students or staff mailboxes."