Do the right thing

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 22 April, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 22 April, 2012, 12:00am

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Thomas Burish, provost of the University of Notre Dame, recently visited Hong Kong as part of a tour to establish collaborative ties with educational institutions across China. It is a timely move, as mainlanders make up about a third of the 650 foreign doctoral candidates at Notre Dame, which has had a 10-fold increase in applications from mainland students over the past five years. Burish discussed some of the salient issues in higher education.

How does the quality of university education in China compare with that in the US?

China is becoming better at providing higher education, and no doubt mainland institutions will soon achieve even higher international rankings.

The mainland students I have met are generally hard working, intelligent, well-prepared to adapt to a new environment and willing to do community service. China produces some of the best students, many of whom are ready to become world citizens. It has been working in close partnership with many overseas academic institutions on exchange and research programmes, including many in the United States. It's important for universities to continue these efforts in order to learn from each other's strengths and expertise.

What are the latest trends in global higher education?

Universities worldwide are focusing more on leadership training, practical skills and the education of the whole person, emphasising inner qualities such as honesty.

Apart from intellectual achievement, many universities, like Notre Dame, also focus on nurturing students' social skills, creativity and other qualities, as well as spiritual development. These are all essential factors in whole-person development and give students a competitive edge in our rapidly changing world.

How do you achieve that?

Universities shouldn't focus merely on developing students' technical expertise and skills. Education should be about making a difference in the world, teaching students how to make the right decisions and instilling in them an appreciation of culture and values.

Plagiarism is a growing concern on many mainland campuses. How prevalent is it?

Plagiarism in mainland universities, even its best academic institutions, is becoming a serious problem, but it's not unique to the mainland.

We have the same dilemma in the US. It all comes down to the pressure on students to do well and the ease of using the internet and other electronic sources to find answers without doing the work.

How can it be tackled?

Academic corruption could be avoided by teaching students that plagiarism is morally wrong and not tolerated. Creating such an environment and culture takes time; universities need to be patient and keep a constant watch to make sure students don't deviate from the rules. We have to keep in mind that most students are honest. It's up to each university to stress the importance of honesty and to enforce a zero-tolerance policy on plagiarism. Punishment is an inevitable step, but it is not always the best solution.

Do you have any specific suggestions for solving the problem?

Universities should screen students based on their personal qualities, and stress the importance of academic integrity to students and parents during admission and throughout the term. Students should sign an obligatory honour code and be aware of the severe consequences of violating it.

It's an ongoing process that requires constant vigilance. Each small step taken to compromise integrity can lead to bigger problems.

What is your university doing to promote academic integrity?

To promote responsible leadership, more than 80 per cent of the courses have a section on ethics. 'Integrity' is the theme of the university's Mendoza College of Business. Students are requested to emphasise integrity in every business decision made.