Experts say the reasons for cheating among today's students extend from on-campus competition, to more fluid notions around what is unethical, to a cultural generation gap between students and professors. "In this knowledge-worker age, it's now increasingly tied to doing well in school so you can get into better grad schools so you can get better jobs -- so the pressure to do well is really high," says Stephen Covey, author of The Speed of Trust. "There's strong data that within companies the No. 1 reason for ethical violations is the pressure to meet expectations, sometimes unrealistic expectations." The same, he says, holds true for school. Over the last two decades, too, North American universities have seen their mandates shift from institutions of learning, remote from the more quotidian aims of finding work and putting food on the table, to the necessary condition for entree into the corporate world. "I think there's a lot of students these days who have bought into the message that you come to university for a credential -- to get a better job, to make more money," says Christensen Hughes. As Covey says, students "get the degree, not the education."
Some students who admit to misconduct often believe their professors are complicit in their cheating. Among engineering students, says Christensen Hughes, "there was a sense that they were expected to take more courses than other students, typically, so they felt justified -- they needed to find shortcuts." She adds: "They also said that they assumed that faculty knew that. So in a sense they felt there was collusion or, 'Nudge-nudge, wink-wink, we all know what's going on, we all know what it takes to survive this program.' "
McCabe sees something else at work in the trend. "Younger people joining the workforce feel much more at ease making their own rules -- deciding what rules they can ignore, what rules they should apply and what way they can apply them," he says. In a small but not insignificant number of the students surveyed, McCabe finds some who see cheating as a valuable skill in itself. "I'll have students who will say, 'I'm just acquiring a skill that will serve me well in the real world,' " says McCabe. "They see it as training in a sense -- they're learning how to beat the system."
Cheating at university is hardly a new development, but surely a culture of widespread, openly-admitted cheating is. Faced with a generation that has been taught to equate “wrong” with “wrong for me”, how could this problem be tackled other than through increased surveillance, invasion of privacy and police work? Is honesty not just another one of those platonist ideals that have caused us so much unnecessary grief? Would they respond to reasoned arguments on how we evolved an aversion to cheating because it conferred survival benefits?