British universities face cheating “epidemic”

Unprecedented levels of plagiarism have been reported by universities across Britain in what has been called a cheating “epidemic”, as almost fifty thousand students have been caught in the past three years alone.

The findings were initially reported by The Times newspaper, in an investigation into cheating at 129 different universities across Britain.  The figures were revealed through a series of Freedom of Investigation requests made by the newspaper.

Amongst the “worst offenders”, The Times found, were The University of Kent, with  1,947 students caught cheating, The University of Westminster, with 1,933, and Edinburgh Napier, with 1,395.

At The University of Edinburgh, 586 students were disciplined for academic misconduct, with over 180 caught last year, according to The Times.  

However, it is likely that the figures reported by The Times are only the tip of the iceberg, with the majority of cases of plagiarism continuing to go either undetected or unreported.

Numerous academics and plagiarism officers have come forward accusing Russell Group universities of failing to report the extent to which cheating occurs, out of fear for the loss of academic reputation and to avoid hefty litigation fees.

A professor from The University of Oxford and former Russell Group university external examiner, who wished to remain unnamed, spoke to The Student about the ways in which plagiarism had increased over the past 20 years, and why universities were attempting to cover it up.

“The present situation is this; if you do a Google search using words like “cheating in universities” [or] “student plagiarism”, you will find a number of stories in British and American universities over the last 5 years on the subject – in the American case, often about some of it most famous universities.

“Plagiarism makes for a good newspaper article. But not much ever happens afterwards. Why not? The universities deny it, lie low, and wait for the issue to go away for a while. In a sense the problem, at least in Britain, is not really theirs. They are trying the best they can to keep their own institutions afloat financially.”

The professor told The Student that they believed the government had a responsibility to take action, ensuring all universities publish annual reports on the number of cases of plagiarism identified and the nature of the penalties imposed, investigating those with inexplicably low rates.

This won’t happen of course” the professor told The Student. “The government have no interest in going down this route and the universities will continue to lie low.

“Everyone will continue to act as if the universities are the same kind of institutions they were decades ago, and that procedures for dealing with cheating then are still appropriate now. So in 3 years’ time someone like you, following up an article about cheating in a national newspaper, will still be wondering what is going on. Depressing, I know.”

The University of Cambridge was amongst the universities which reported suspiciously low levels of cheating, with just five cases in the last five years, in comparison to a 2008 survey by The Varsity newspaper, in which almost half (49%) of students at The University of Cambridge admitted to cheating.
    A spokesperson for The University of Cambridge flatly denied any misrepresentation of figures, telling The Student, “We are confident in our ability to identify and discipline instances of academic misconduct.”

A spokesperson for the University of Westminster, which had the second highest rates of reported cheating,  expressed scepticism about the results of the investigation, telling The Student, “We question these figures as universities do not have a standard measure for calculating, recording and disciplining academic misconduct.”

“Our robust procedures include the use of advanced software, which means that we may have a higher rate of detection compared to other universities. The way figures are calculated and subsequent actions are taken varies from institution to institution, for example, our figures are based on the number of incidents rather than the number of students.

“We treat academic misconduct cases very seriously and impose strict penalties on any student found guilty of committing an offence. However, some offences can be student error rather than ‘cheating’ and these are dealt with appropriately.  We conduct comprehensive investigations into any offences that are deemed  to be cheating and take necessary actions as relevant.”

A spokesperson for Edinburgh Napier University, which also reported over 1,000 cases of cheating over the last three years, told The Student, “Data from 129 universities does not easily lend itself to like-for-like comparisons.”

In response to a Freedom of Information request from The Times, shared with The Student, The University of Edinburgh reported 180 cases of academic misconduct in 2012/13, 207 in 2013/14 and 181 in 2014/2015, with 568 students caught cheating over all. 495 of these students had marks penalised whilst 35 students recieved formal warnings.

All figures came from coursework, with data for academic misconduct in exams cited as “less than 5” for all three academic years.

In conversation with The Student, numerous undergraduates from The University of Edinburgh admitted to cheating, citing online essay mills, where for a fee complete essays could be bought, with prices rising for higher grades, paying their friends to write their essays for them and plagiarising the work of others without citation.

Students cited overwhelming pressure, lack of time and panic amongst the reasons they had res0rted to cheating.

None of the students who admitted to cheating said they had faced disciplinary action for their actions. One Edinburgh University undergraduate, who wished to remain unnamed, told The Student; “It’s only plagiarism if you get caught.”

A spokesperson from The University of Edinburgh told The Student,  “The University takes plagiarism very seriously. Although the total number of students found to have submitted plagiarised work represents a very small proportion of our total student body, we are committed to ensuring that, as far as possible, it is detected and dealt with appropriately.

“Students must ensure that any work they submit for assessment is their own, and where their submissions include materials which are the work of another person or persons, they should ensure that they have taken all reasonable steps to acknowledge the source.”

Image: Nic McPhee

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