Ethics, economics and justice compel zero tolerance.

THE issue of university students cheating, or engaging in what is euphemistically referred to as ''academic misconduct'', might sound straightforward, but it is actually rather complex. It involves ethics, economics, culture and technology. Recent reports suggest such cheating, which has always existed to some extent, is on the rise, and that there is even a flourishing underground online trade in essays and the like.

First principles provide unimpeachable guidance, particularly in complex situations. Here are some: honesty and integrity are not relative; undue leniency creates moral hazard; fairness and justice ought not to be compromised.

The tip is that Deakin University has suspended a student over copied work, and has had to investigate more than 100 cases of suspected cheating. The iceberg is that Deakin is but one of dozens of tertiary education institutions that, collectively, are Australia's third-biggest export earner. Thus, the Titanic is the Australian economy. Thinking more locally, tertiary education is Victoria's biggest export earner. This is, therefore, a truly menacing iceberg.

Tertiary education is one of the most dynamic and competitive sectors on the planet. Anything that threatens the brand of Australian tertiary education threatens the nation's economic future. Australian universities are facing unprecedented competition from exonerated brands throughout the industrialised world. Names as strong as Harvard, Cambridge, Stanford and MIT have begun to offer accredited, assessed courses online. That is the threat. The opportunity is that our tertiary education providers can leverage their international and domestic clout and reputation by attracting even more foreign students - by partnering online with leading offshore institutions and by establishing bricks-and-mortar offshoots around the world, particularly in Asia, a market set to grow exponentially in coming years.

Tolerance of cheating, therefore, should be precluded not only by fairness and justice, but by economic self-interest. Our universities derive much revenue from foreign students. But that does not, and must not, mean those students are owed special treatment. They are, though, owed appropriate support. For example, should their proficiency in English be wanting, they ought to be given supplementary tuition; a university would be morally bankrupt were it to accept students who did not have the core language capability to undertake the courses for which they are paying, and paying handsomely. They are also owed due process when accused of cheating.

Another guiding principle is that conflicts of interest occur all the time; the issue is not whether they happen, the issue is how they are dealt with. In the case of cheating by students, universities ought not even consider leniency on the grounds that some of the perpetrators might be high-paying foreign students.

The current generation of undergraduates are what is know as ''digital natives'', which is where the cultural and technological elements come in. Universities have a duty to help students understand the profound difference between the pursuit of knowledge through reason and rigorous intellectual investigation, and accessing so-called known unknowns via the web. Wikipedia, for example, is a useful resource for solving silly disputes about facts; it is not more than a starting point for academic study.

Digital natives' moral compass has not, The Age believes, been corrupted by the wonderful and immediate access to information that technology has provided. Anyone with the intelligence to be at university knows cheating is cheating - and that it is not acceptable, on any level. Australia's universities owe it to themselves, their students and the nation to publicly adopt a zero-tolerance policy on ''academic misconduct''. They should make it clear they charge fees, but cannot, in any way, be bought.