‘Smart drugs’ aren’t so clever


Ritalin is an ADHD drug widely used by students to improve academic performance. Photo: ADHD Center

Ritalin, a drug used to treat Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder and used off-label to improve academic performance, will soon be widely used at universities around the world, according to an Australian psychologist and academic.

Controversially, the University of Sydney psychologist Vince Cakic also claims that using such ‘smart drugs’, which improve concentration, is no more cheating than a student having private tutoring.

Writing in the Journal of Medical Ethics, Professor Cakic explains that if you were to ban ‘smart drugs’ for giving students an unfair advantage then the same can be said of private tutoring for students, as only the financially well off can afford extra tuition.

Mr Cakic also says he believes in the next few years academic doping may become as prevalent as doping in sport and, just like the athletic equivalent, educational institutions will be unable to control drug use and academic drug testing will soon become the norm. These claims by Mr Cakic come after it emerged that perhaps one-in-four students are taking ‘smart drugs’ at US universities.

Despite Professor Cakic’s argument, the director of Student Services at the University of Lincoln, Judith Carey, has hit back at his claims that academic doping is no different to extra tuition and that they level the academic playing field.

“We all have a very negative view of taking drugs to enhance sporting performance and this is no different. The argument that taking these drugs is the same as extra tutoring is ridiculous, I see taking extra tutoring as putting in extra work, the equivalent of training for longer in sport,” Carey says.

Carey says that the risks of taking any ‘smart drug’ far out weighed any potential benefit, and that there was a serious danger of not only damaging your health but also your education if you were caught cheating. She admits that students may hear about the benefits and consider using these drugs, particularly as they’re prescription medication and students may think that makes them safe, but she warns against this.

“My advice is that it’s prescription for a reason. A doctor has made a decision that this drug’s beneficial to an individual, who knows what the risk factors are for someone who hasn’t been assessed to take this drug, if you are on other medication and you don’t know the risks involved,” she says.

Steven Greaves, the SU’s vice-president for welfare, agreed with Ms Carey’s advice, urging that the main priority for students considering taking anything to help boost their grades should be their own health.

“First and foremost look after yourself and make sure you’re not in a position where you need to take these drugs. If you’ve got a lot of work, find out when your deadlines are and spread your work out rather than leaving it all to the last minute,” Greaves says.

Natalie Colman, an optometry student, says she has high-pressure exams at the end of her degree, during her pre-reg year, for which she has to wait six months to re-sit if she fails first time around.  Despite this she says she wouldn’t consider taking the drug and can’t see why they would be necessary.

“I’m not sure how effective the drugs are, but I think anything is possible with the right motivation.  You shouldn’t need to turn to prescription drugs if you are truely driven to succeed,” Colman says.

Both the Students’ Union and Student Services say help and advice is on offer to any students who are having problems dealing with workloads or considering using ‘smart drugs’.

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