Cheating Incidents Triple at the University of Auckland Due to Online Exams

By Justin Hu (he/him)

The University of Auckland (UOA) discovered nearly 900 cheating incidents last year, in a tripling of its previous three-year average.


Data released to Debate under the Official Information Act also indicate that the numbers show no sign of slowing down this year – with the university blaming online exams.


This comes after anonymous allegations of “widespread” cheating in the university’s online exams were publicised in June. At the time, one unnamed student claimed that the cheating was “prolific”.


According to the University of Auckland’s academic misconduct register, the number of disciplined cheating incidents in 2020 surged to 897. In comparison, an average of the previous three years saw an average yearly rate of 287 incidents, though the number in 2019 was significantly higher at 443 incidents.


Meanwhile, before August’s lockdown, there had been 572 incidents recorded in the register so far this year. Debate’s request for information had been sent in July.


Earlier in February, the university had moved a majority of its exams online in both semester one and semester two.


At the time, Vice-Chancellor Dawn Freshwater said it was a decision driven by the unpredictability of Covid alert level changes.


In a statement, university spokesperson Lisa Finucane confirmed that the online exams had resulted in more cases of academic misconduct.


“There has been an increase in the number of allegations and proven cases of academic misconduct in online examinations compared with in-person paper-based examinations.”


The spokesperson added that the university “takes a number of steps to prevent, detect, monitor and investigate cheating in online examinations.” Responding to Debate’s request for information, the university also added that there were approximately 162,000 exam sittings in 2020.


New Zealand Union of Students’ Associations (NZUSA) national president Andrew Lessells said that online exam systems have been a “recipe for disaster” for students in Auckland.

"If universities simply try to make a paper-based exam an online one, with no thought put into how to ensure academic integrity, then there is a real risk that the issue could become more widespread.”

“If universities simply try to make a paper-based exam an online one, with no thought put into how to ensure academic integrity, then there is a real risk that the issue could become more widespread,” Lessells said.


In July, Newshub reported critical comments from multiple UOA staff members who said the university hadn’t done enough to prevent cheating. At the time, one staff member said that the university had “rushed” implementing the online exam system. Some staff said more invasive exam surveillance software was needed.


The critical staff comments came after a student complained of “prolific”, “widespread and organised” cheating in an online science exam.


Lessells continued: “For students to have a major portion of their grade assessed by a system that was thrown together in lockdown and is still going through growing pains, results in major uncertainty and stress for students. Add to that an ongoing lockdown and it’s a recipe for disaster for Auckland-based students.


“The current model of online examination was not arrived at by design but by necessity.”


The NZUSA president added that there needed to be a greater focus on designing exams that prevented cheating in the first place and on educating students.


“Massey has been doing it for decades through its distance papers and has a wealth of knowledge that other universities should harness.”


However, Lessells was also clear that he felt more surveillance in online exams – as suggested by some to counter cheating – was not a viable solution.


“We need to be careful that they don’t overreact and resort to invasive software, such as ProctorU. A poorly designed examination will result in some breaches of academic integrity regardless of how dystopian the monitoring systems are.”


Last year, Victoria University had mandated the installation of the ProctorU exam software in order for some students to take their online exams. According to Salient, the more invasive software was criticised for creating privacy issues and inequities for Māori and Pasifika students.


In its statement, the University of Auckland’s spokesperson added that its online exams were often designed to be open book to make cheating harder.


They added that students also had to take a compulsory course on academic integrity and that the university had highlighted what “constitutes cheating” to students.


“We 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,” Finucane said.


The spokesperson added that students can contact the university’s confidential whistleblower hotline to report cheating.


The Auckland University Students’ Association did not respond to a request for comment.