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While students buckled down on Sunday for the first day of school at one of seven Israeli universities, one office on campus will remain quiet, at least until exam season - the office that prosecutes cheats.
At Tel Aviv University (TAU), cheating matters are processed through the university's academic secretary's office, where a court headed by a judge plucked from the Faculty of Law weighs personal circumstance against the crime and decides on appropriate punishment. According to the prosecutor of the tribunal, students are really not aware of the consequences of what can happen to them if they get caught cheating.
As cellphones - where data can be programmed or recorded and retrieved during an exam - are within reach of everyone nowadays, and term papers can be commissioned and lifted off the Net, cheaters are becoming more creative and potentially more prolific in their activities.
However, "A cheat is a cheat is a cheat," says the prosecutor, who asked not to be named. If a professor comes to him complaining of a cheat in the class, whether on an exam, doctoring a PhD thesis, or lifting material from the Internet and calling it his own, the prosecutor will help determine in all fairness, with the help of a committee, how to treat the student. The school forgoes tar and feathers and prefers to expel the cheat instead.
"Sometimes, if a student asks for forgiveness, we let him or her off easier, and instead of expulsion for a year, he/she may get only one or two months," says the lawyer. "Punishment, though, is always handed out based on personal circumstance and is determined by the university."
A TAU undergraduate named Rina (not her real name) complained a few months ago about the cheating policy at universities. One of her friends was caught cheating on a term paper - the friend had written about an event that she did not attend, but her teacher had been there. The teacher caught the misdemeanor, reported the offence to the academic secretary's office, and the girl was expelled from school. According to Rina, a letter was distributed around the campus making her friend the case study that warned students what could happen to them if they chose to plagiarize.
It was an act Rina felt was unfair because, she says, "everyone" at the university is cheating on papers, especially since the Internet makes it so easy to do so.
After some phone calls to the Education Ministry, the Council for Higher Learning, and the Israeli Association of University Heads, it can be concluded that no organization except for the universities themselves are handling the cheating quandary.
And a quandary it is. If the universities are prosecuting "only" the handful of cases that are caught, without establishing to what extent cheating is happening, then how many more hundreds and potentially thousands of students are cheating, thereby raising the bar for those who are pursuing higher education honestly?
One student, Michelle (not her real name), a recent graduate in computers and biology from Ra'anana, says that cheating is a big problem in Israeli universities. She has heard rumors that students are using many creative solutions to making the grade, some of which prevent others from succeeding. She has seen other tactics firsthand.
One rumor she heard is that psychology students at one university routinely rip pages out of textbooks that are limited in circulation, preventing others from acquiring the information they need before exam time. Other students are hiding textbooks in lavatories.
"I have personal experience with people hiding textbooks in toilet stalls during exams so that when they go out 'to use the bathroom,' they can look up the answers," says Michelle. She has also seen students pull notes from their pockets and sleeves, copy answers surreptitiously, and then throw the notes out after the exam.
She thinks cheating is a childish thing to do. "Someone who is not mature enough to cope with his or her own knowledge or lack thereof should not be given a degree at all," she says.
"The face of the generation is like the face of the dog," says Michelle, drawing on the Hebrew expression used by Israelis to depict aspects of society that have crumbled beyond hope.
The TAU prosecutor confirms some of the creative cheating strategies Michelle spoke of, and admits that some cheating tactics are too clever to be detected. Of the 30 or so students found out at TAU since the beginning of 2005, the prosecutor says he is sure that there are many more that do not get caught.
"We are not an investigative service," he insists, explaining that his office is not responsible for uncovering new kinds of cheating but rather, making sure that complaints get answered and that those found out get their appropriate punishment.
One university teacher, Ron (name changed), was teaching an elective class at Ben-Gurion University towards his term paper and found it common for students to take material off the Net, personalize it somewhat, and submit it as their own. "While perhaps it isn't plagiarism per se," says Ron, "it was not the most inspired research, either."
"One day we will raise the issue of cheating in universities," says an undisclosed source from the Council of Higher Learning - but until now, it is not an issue for Higher Education to solve. According to its website, the council is the state institution responsible for higher education, including teaching and research.
Although the Association of University Heads meets regularly to discuss university-related issues such as matriculation examinations, they do not discuss cheating.
"It is a private matter for the universities to solve," says a spokesperson for the association. "It is the kind of thing that universities want to handle, quietly."
The spokesperson agrees that cheating is a big problem in Israel, more so in high school, where students are competing for results on the final matriculation exams that determine what track and university they will enter in the following year, if at all.
"There are no regulations for watching the students during the exam, and sometimes teachers are even found helping their students answer questions on the test. I know it is a big problem because I have school-age kids who tell me so," he attests.