Recently, I wrote a blog about the rampant use of unfair means in our universities and how this is destroying the sanctity of our exams, grades, diplomas and degrees. Naturally, several suggestions came on how to deal with the situation. And frankly, I am shocked. Most of the suggestions are based on the logic that if someone steals 1000 rupees, and get caught, we should ask him/her to return 1000 rupees.
What should be the logic of penalty. To me, the logic is rather simple. On an average, cheating should not be a profitable business. It should be understood that some instances of using unfair means will be caught and others will not be caught. Amongst those that are caught, in some cases, the evidence would be considered weak, and so on. Only a few will be caught with hard evidence, and if a university were to give them no punishment at all, then cheating becomes a profitable business.
A pretty large number of faculty members would do nothing to check use of unfair means in the exams, and would never be able to tell whether someone has cheated. I am not bothered about them. If they want that no one should learn from their courses, that is their problem. (I can not be expected to raise all the problems of Indian academia in this blog.) My problem with such people starts when they sit in disciplinary committees, and want others too to ignore cheating. When a solid evidence of cheating is presented to them, they start pontificating on how everyone deserves a second, third, fourth chances in life. For God's sake, no one is talking about taking away their lives for cheating. And they will have second, third and fourth chances in life, even if some penalty is imposed on them now.
Some people say that they give a zero in the questions that they are sure have been copied. It is a shame that we have such people as faculty members, is all I would say. They do not even understand that they are strongly encouraging cheating by students. The first group was supporting cheating because they had a bleeding heart. This group is supporting cheating because they have no brains. I would any day prefer someone with a bleeding heart over a braindead person.
Then we had a faculty member tell me proudly that he gives not just a zero but a few negative marks as well. Now, just think about it. A student copies 3-4 questions. The instructor is able to confirm one or two questions, and the negative marks are less than the marks obtained in the other two questions. So even this student who has been caught benefits from cheating. And, of course, all those who are not caught, benefit hugely from cheating.
Another method employed was to give one grade less. So the faculty member would grade the whole paper as if nothing had happened. They will decide the grade in the normal way, and while submitting the grades to the academic section, reduce the grade by one. Now, think about it. If that student had not copied all those questions, and had not been able to obtain marks in those questions (and you don't know whether it was just one question or 10 questions), the chances are that s/he would have been given one grade less on the basis of performance anyway. So once again, you are talking about same status as without cheating, if s/he gets caught. And all those who do not get caught benefit. Overall, cheating wins.
The next method employed was to ask the student to drop the course. In IIT Kanpur, we allow students to drop courses till 3rd month of the semester, and hence if anyone is caught cheating in the first three months, the simple thing to do is to drop the course. Now, of course, students plan well. If someone is habitual cheater, s/he would register for one course extra in the semester. If s/he is unlucky and does get caught in one of those courses, just drop that course and move on in life. It is really no punishment at all, because in any case the student was planning to drop one course.
Then, we have the "harsh" kinds who would fail the student in the course. Whether this punishment is sufficient or not (from the point of view of ensuring that cheating does not pay on an average) will really depend on what do you believe is the extent of cheating and what fraction of students are getting caught. If we have a great system and a fairly large number of students who cheat tend to get caught, then giving them an "F" grade would at least making sure that cheating does not pay. However, ask any student and you will know that a very tiny fraction of students actually are caught. Also, when we say that cheating should not pay, we are really not looking at a system where the net return is zero, but we should be looking for a system where the net return is significantly negative. Considering these two, it is clear to me that just failing the student is not enough. (I fail such students in my course, because that is the maximum I can do as an instructor, and IIT Kanpur has an extremely poor track record of punishing unethical behavior.)
So the minimum punishment for an act of cheating should be removing the student from the rolls for a semester. (This effectively amounts to failing a full semester load of courses, though such a failure is not recorded in the transcript, and hence increases the cost of cheating.) And if someone has been a repeat offender, or someone who has done cheating through means which are more difficult to catch, the punishment has to be much stronger, perhaps leading to the termination of the program altogether and rusticating the student from the university.