Governments Must Wake Up to the Digital Technologies Undermining Educational Integrity

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Less than a year into the generative AI explosion, the International Labour Organization (ILO) has concluded that widespread worker displacement misgivings surrounding this emerging technology could be overblown. In its new report, published on 21 August, the ILO posits that generative AI software such as ChatGPT and Google Bard are “more likely to augment than destroy jobs,” namely by automating repetitive tasks and creating time for more high-level, strategic work. But while most industries are only “partially exposed” to AI automation, the ILO cautions that the impact could be “brutal” for clerical labor.

Unemployment fears have loomed high on the list of potential dark sides to the AI revolution—but a less publicized threat is increasingly raising eyebrows: the erosion of integrity in higher education. Students are now routinely using ChatGPT to cheat on university assignments, with this technology exacerbating existing challenges undermining the educational certification systems that underpin well-functioning economies.

Governments, universities, and private firms must, therefore, ramp up collaborative efforts to protect higher education from technological compromise—without stifling digitally-driven innovation.

AI’s new layer to an older problem

The generative AI boom has added an enormous new layer to a problem that regulators had made recent progress in reining in. In April 2022, the UK’s Skills and Post-16 Education Act received royal assent, rendering “essay mills” and other forms of assignment-for-hire illegal following a significant proliferation of academic ‘contract cheating’ in recent years, building on similar legislation passed in Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, and several US states.

Yet, as is often the case, regulation has once again fallen woefully behind technological progress. Regenerative AI software has completely changed the game, rendering essay-for-hire factories – and the legal ban on them – essentially obsolete given the level of sophistication provided by free apps like ChatGPT, which “in a single afternoon” enable students to “generate enough mediocre prose to complete an entire undergraduate degree,” as one Toronto-based journalist recently declared. Late last year, AI chatbots became the dominant cheating tool for university essays and exams virtually overnight, with one in five US students reporting having used this technology for coursework.

The regulatory gap has left professors scrambling on the frontlines to detect AI-generated assignments; however, the verification software that they have turned to, such as GPTRadar and GPTZero, have proven highly unreliable at ferreting out robotic text.

Absent effective tech and legal solutions, professors like Joshua Gans of the Rotman School of Management are shifting away from generic essay questions to prompts that require AI-proof reasoning skills, while St. John’s University professor Bonnie MacKellar has predicted a “big shift back to paper-based tests.” Moreover, administrators such as Michigan State

University associate Dean Bill Hart is delivering AI workshops to help faculty lead this educational transition.

Private sector solutions like SICPA’s CERTUS tackle the plague of fake certificates.

Beyond generative AI, academic integrity faces a more blatant challenge. The plague of fake, forged degree certificates may not be new – already in 2015, the notorious Pakistani ‘diploma mill’ Axact sold over 215,000 bogus qualifications across its vast network of fake online universities – but it is accelerating. According to leading expert Allen Ezell, the global degree mill industry is now worth an estimated $7 billion annually, with cynical actors cashing in on an increasingly “credential conscious” world, online learning expansion, and weak screening.

This toxic combination has resulted in egregious cases of degree fraud across the world. In the US, the ‘Operation Nightingale’ federal investigation uncovered that 25 people had sold 7,600 fake nursing diplomas for a whopping $114 million. In recent years, fake education certificates have also flourished in Africa, with Tanzania’s then-President John Magufuli firing nearly 10,000 civil servants in 2017 after a government report revealed their forged qualifications, mirroring the deteriorating situation in South African and Ethiopian government agencies.

Yet Ethiopia is taking a stand to counter the growing menace of counterfeit degree certificates, particularly given screenings earlier this year that revealed the extent of its exposure. On 8 August, the National Education and Training Authority – in the presence of State Minister for Innovation and Technology Fozia Amin – sealed a collaboration with Swiss high-tech security firm SICPA, which will see SICPA’s innovative CERTUS solution offer public institutions, universities, and private companies the ability to verify digital and paper-based educational certificates in real-time.

Over the partnership’s initial months, SICPA will provide selected higher education institutions in Ethiopia with 4,000 security codes incorporated into degree certificates using advanced QR code technology to counter any forging attempts, after which it will deliver a further 24,000 codes to the Education and Training Authority. With its cross-sector, tech-driven approach, Addis Ababa is displayed as a promising model for other governments looking to tackle the diploma mill boom.

Wide-ranging impacts call for cross-sector response.

This kind of intervention is vital considering the societal implications of higher education’s erosion. The public health impact of doctors and nurses faking their credentials is clear as day. For example, at least 2,800 of the 7,600 fake nursing degree holders identified in Operation Nightingale passed their nursing board exam, exposing hospitals across America to a hoard of untrained medical professionals. Moreover, flooding the market with fake or AI-assisted degrees considerably devalues them, meaning that students who work hard to earn a genuine education will face increasing scrutiny from future employers and likely have to take on further education – and more student debt – to get ahead.

Governments will need to lead the policy response, acting as a convening force between the private and university sectors. From introducing AI regulations that protect against abuses without hindering its vital innovation capacities to developing and implementing hi-tech anti-forgery and cheating verification technologies and delivering an ambitious range of skills, training, and financial aid programs, this cross-sector coalition can promote beneficial and responsible uses of new technologies while reducing the incentives for academic dishonesty.

As the ILO’s new study rightly surmises, the “outcomes of the technological transition are not pre-determined,” and “it is humans that need to guide the process.” By implementing these kinds of policies, governments, universities, and private companies can help ensure that the unfolding digital tech revolution cultivates a socioeconomically fairer, healthier, and more prosperous world.

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