By Cod Satrusayang
BANGKOK (DPA) — When Nui snuck into her professor's office to get the answers for an upcoming exam, she wasn't doing it to rise to the top of her university class, she said, but simply not to be left behind.
"I did it because everyone else was doing it and it seemed like an easy way to get an A," said the 20-year-old student from the humanities department of Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University.
"I didn't cheat because I wanted to get ahead."
Nui, not her real name, is far from an exception in Thailand, where higher education has been blighted by plagiarism and cheating for years. But with the trend starting to tarnish the country's reputation, educators are beginning to address the issue seriously.
"Outside of China, Thailand is probably the worst offender in Asia in terms of plagiarism and falsified applications," an admissions officer at an American university told dpa.
He said that applications from Thailand are scrutinized for doctored transcripts and ghostwritten essays. He told the story of two essays he received, nearly identical in style and terminology.
When he investigated he found that both applications originated from the same agency offering support services to applicants.
"It seems in both countries [China and Thailand] plagiarism is a serious epidemic and it needs to be dealt with."
Thai universities are also taking steps. On Thursday, Chulalongkorn made available to other universities a computer programme it designed to check thesis papers for plagiarism.
The Thai Office for Higher Education said all higher education institutions must use the internet-based Turnitin programme to check for plagiarism in all academic papers from September.
"I think any kind of attempt to combat plagiarism is a good thing," said Panuwat Panduprasert, a lecturer at Chiang Mai University.
"Universities have not been cracking down on hard enough. State universities are pretty slow to adapt because of bureaucracy."
To some students cheating is justified because of the pressure to excel.
"Cheating is considered normal among Thai students," said Thanawat Kheawdoknoi, a 22-year-old graduate from Thammasat University.
"They have always been taught that having great grades means you're smart and affects how people think of you.
"It doesn't matter how you get there as long as you do."
Lecturers like Panuwat said that universities' longstanding acceptance of cheating has created a prisoner's dilemma.
"Students think that everyone is doing it and if they don't they will lose out," he said.
But the universities are starting to clamp down. "I've had students repeat a year for bringing in a cheat sheet," said Narudh Areesorn, a former lecturer at Mahidol University in Bangkok.
Narudh said instances of bringing notes into lectures are rare. Students more frequently steal exam papers from professors, which he regards as "soft cheating."
Thais are increasingly criticized for misrepresenting themselves in applications to universities overseas, often with the connivance of specialized agencies, Fortune Magazine reported in February.
For a hefty fee, these centres guarantee acceptance into an elite Ivy League institution in the US.
Their methods include ghost-writing application essays, coaching interview sessions, and in some cases falsifying transcripts or creating fake outreach projects to pad a candidate's application.
To middle- and upper-class Thai parents, the fee – which can exceed 30,000 dollars – is worth it. Attendance at prestigious overseas universities is seen as a symbol of status and gives parents bragging rights when talking about their child.
"You have to understand for Thais, education is very important," said Eed, a parent who asked not to give her full name.
"Getting into a top university is paramount otherwise we fall behind the other families. The centres have guaranteed us there is no cheating involved," said Eed, whose daughter is enrolled with one such programme.
But admissions officers are doubtful, the Fortune report said, indicating that the spread of application service providers has made colleges more wary of applications from Thailand.
Tufts University in the United States threw out a quarter of Thai applications for suspected cheating in 2013, the article quoted an admissions officer as saying.
"These parents need to realize that there is no need to cheat," said a college admissions advisor at an international high school in Thailand.
The source argues that these centres also undermine the long-term development of students and could cause problems academically in college as students enter the top universities unprepared.
"What's worse is the example these parents and guidance centres are setting for these students. They go into life thinking that cheating and shortcutting are normal and that is a horrible thing to teach a child."