I volunteer to sit as a lecturer on our academic misconduct board several times a semester, joining a small panel that decides whether or not students flagged up by their lecturers for cheating have broken the rules.
We get a stack of roughly 10 cases, and for two or three hours we pore over them, not only deciding if students are guilty as charged but also what the punishment should be, according to our university guidelines.
OK, I admit it: it’s a laugh. Ways in which students cheat are either ingenious or surprisingly obvious. Among the day-to-day banality of preparing lectures, marking assessments and dealing with the bureaucracy of university life, sitting on the board is often a welcome escape.
Students have been known to hide earphones in headscarves, buy essays online or articles from content writers, and steal other students’ papers. One grabbed another student’s USB stick when he went to the toilet, downloaded a project and sent it to himself. Another submitted the exact paper his sister had submitted for the same module a year earlier.
Don’t be shocked at how gormless students can be (they’d have to be, or they wouldn’t cheat, right?). One left the sales receipt from the essay mill in his book. Another advertised online – using her photograph – for someone to do her work for her. A third denied that the text he had so meticulously copied was plagiarism – until he was shown the original, in a book written by the tutor. Another sent an army of male students pretending to be him to sit his exams, all equipped with fake IDs.
When it comes to pure plagiarism, you’d think that using our online plagiarism checker, Turnitin, would be a deterrent, but evidently it isn’t. Sometimes those crafty kids just change the nouns using an online thesaurus, as if that would make their work plagiarism-free. But the nouns they substitute often make their writing look weird. Is that alarm bells ringing?
Sometimes their English is poor – at least in the first three paragraphs – and then miraculously becomes perfect. Being too lazy to change the typeface when their work reverts to someone else’s is another giveaway, as is forgetting to change the spelling from American to British English.
Extreme cases include that of one student where 84% of her work came from Wikipedia, complete with links and superscripts. The other 16% was her own work, and was entirely incomprehensible.
It’s not hard catching someone in flagrante, as Turnitin will flag up in bright pink anything either turned in before or published elsewhere. What is hard is catching someone who has paid to have something tailor-written for them, although often it’s of such a higher standard that those bells start ringing again.
The government has tried unsuccessfully to crack down on essay mills, where desperate – or lazy –students pay up to £3,000 for a BA dissertation (and about £150 for a run-of-the-mill essay). But since a proposed amendment that would have made it illegal to sell essays to the higher education and research bill didn’t pass earlier this year, the onus is now on universities to solve the problem.
We’ve been asked by the Quality Assurance Agency to block the websites, provide more support to students and implement widespread use of plagiarism software. This is difficult because contract cheating allegations are still pretty rare – but that’s because they’re difficult to evidence.
I once spent seven hours finding definitive proof that a student had purchased her assessment, which eventually resulted in her expulsion from university. Sadly, some lecturers don’t go the full mile, as catching a cheater and filling out a report can be very labour-intensive.
“Banning essay mills would be great, but it’s a free market and a free country, so you can’t do it. Even if you did, they would just start up in Russia or somewhere,” one of my colleagues told me. “It’s about making people understand that whatever stress they’re under, it’s not OK to pay people to do their work. It’s a moral education thing. Paying means they are not getting the education process. There is no point cheating, as the rules are the game. You’re not learning.”
So why do students cheat, and risk having to retake a module, having their degree classification lowered, or even being kicked out of university? There are many reasons – including financial pressure, poor organisational skills and panic – sometimes among young people who should never have gone to university in the first place or, at the very least, who should have had more support structures in place when they started.
“The fact that students feel they need to get a 2:1 or above to succeed pressurises them into cheating to achieve it,” a member of our university registry management team told me, estimating that the number of cheaters is rising. “I also think some universities are taking students who are not capable of achieving that outcome, due to pressures on universities to fill places.”
The much-decried “university mental health crisis” is also a contributing factor. Students are facing undue pressure to succeed – not just financially – and many are ill-equipped to make the transition from home or work. The UPP Annual Student Experience Survey said that 48% of men 67% of women “find the stress of studying difficult to cope with at university”.
“Now that they are paying £9,250, some students feel they are entitled to a degree without doing the work,” my colleague added. “That money just entitles them to begin the learning process.”
Students can provide mitigation to the board, and often it’s a heart-breaking litany: ill children, mental health issues, alcoholic parents. But I tell my first-year students that while I sympathise, there is no excuse for cheating of any kind, and if they cannot meet a deadline to tell me so, we can extend it.
What else do I tell them? Don’t cheat, because if you do, I will catch you. And I do.
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