Written by Cath Ellis, Professor, Faculty of Arts, Design and Architecture, The University of New South Wales

Recently I was honoured to speak at the academic integrity awards ceremony held (virtually) at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD). I’d been asked to speak specifically about the Courageous Conversations program here at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) in Sydney, Australia. Before me, UCSD’s Executive Vice-Chancellor Professor Elizabeth H. Simmons remarked that Academic Integrity is the ‘glue’ that binds educational institutions together. This was a reminder that all educational institutions are, at their core, academic communities.  

All communities bring people together who agree to ‘stick’ together because they all share a sense of purpose and a set of values. All communities share something in common: if a member does not uphold the communities’ values, then their right to remain a part of it can and should be questioned. This is because the very existence of a community is threatened if the bonds of its ‘glue’ weaken and, worse still, break.  

The purpose of our academic community is to acquire and advance knowledge and all members – whether they be a student or a member of staff – are expected to pursue that purpose while upholding the values of academic integrity. When a member fails to enact or uphold its shared values, the community can respond in various ways. Obviously different behaviours are considered differently problematic which almost always corresponds to a scale of what the AMBeR project calls ‘penalties’ that they describe as ranging from ‘mild’ through ‘moderate’ to ‘severe’. When they surveyed responses to academic misconduct across educational institutions in the UK, the response that was by far the most common (found in 98.7% of institutions) was also the most severe: expulsion (p.8). This allows the academic community to say: ‘your behaviour means we no longer want you as a part of our community’.   

Typically, and historically, the behaviour that has come to be known as ‘contract cheating’ is at the severe – and in many cases the most severe – end of that spectrum. Contract cheating occurs when a student outsources their academic work to another person. At many educational institutions, it warrants expulsion. 

I share the view that an academic community we should not tolerate contract cheating. The reasons for this are based on intent: it’s patently implausible that a student could accidentally get someone else to do their academic work for them, particularly a commercial provider. But do I think it necessarily warrants exclusion? Well, no; I don’t. Let me explain why.  

Yes: this kind of behaviour should be taken seriously, but it should also, I argue, be understood as a mistake. Of course it’s a serious mistake, but a mistake nonetheless. And educational institutions are in the very business of helping students learn from their mistakes. If a student is given an opportunity to see and acknowledge that their behaviour is wrong, that it has not displayed the values that ‘glue’ our academic community together, and that they have made a mistake, then we should be prepared to help them fix it.  

That’s where the Courageous Conversations program steps in. It has its roots firmly planted in the soil of restorative justice that, as John Braithwaite puts it, works from the principle that “because crime hurts, justice should heal.” UNSW’s program allows students who have engaged in even the most severe academic misconduct behaviours to admit to and take responsibility for them, to convey their remorse, accept the consequences of their actions (which should always include not receiving credit for any academic work that they didn’t do themselves), to make amends by addressing the reasons that motivated their behaviour in the first place and to accept and engage with the supports and resources available to do this. Last but not least, it requires them to promise to never engage in any kind of cheating behaviour again. And UNSW holds them to that promise. In return, the institution can take the harshest penalty – expulsion – off the table, thereby allowing the student to remain a part of the community. 

All Courageous Conversations take place before a formal investigation begins. If the student is able to alleviate the institution’s concerns, by providing a clear and plausible explanation, then nothing more needs to be happen, avoiding the stress and expense of a formal investigation. In fact, students who have had this experience have appreciated the straightforward opportunity to clear their name and the careful and transparent way in which their matter was handled. If the institution’s concerns have not been addressed and the student chooses not to take the courageous steps, the formal process will still proceed.  

Being prepared to admit to mistakes, even as serious as contract cheating, takes courage; which is why we call them Courageous Conversations. As one of the core values of Academic Integrity, courage is an essential ingredient in our ‘glue’. It allows our community to let go of the idea that students who contract cheat are incorrigible and to instead take a forgiving stance. As Braithwaite puts it, offering a “second chance, can bring out the best in the worst of us” and ultimately rewards everyone to “put their best self forward” (p. 33). Courageous Conversations are, in that sense, part of the very ‘glue’ itself. 

Acknowledgments: The initial idea for Courageous Conversations came from a former colleague David House. He and another former colleague Kane Murdoch put them into practice under the leadership of Bron Green. They are now overseen by the Student Conduct and Integrity team within the Conduct and Integrity Office at UNSW.