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The number of allegations of collusion, plagiarism and ‘contract cheating’ (i.e., having someone else write an essay and pretending you are the author) has increased dramatically in the last few months as COVID forced universities to conduct assessments remotely. Students sat exams at home and, for many, the temptation to cheat was too strong to resist.

I am the Founder of Alpha Academic Appeals, an organisation made up of 11 specialist lawyers who help students accused of cheating or, more grandly, academic misconduct.  Formerly, I was a university lecturer who on occasion caught students cheating.  Now, I only defend them.

Due to COVID-19, assessments have taken place online.  Students are trusted to respect the rules and not confer with others.  No phone calls, no texting, no whatsapp, no snapchat.  Yet, this is hard to police. Whether due to cost, privacy, logistical or other concerns, few institutions in the United Kingdom appear to have invested in virtual proctoring services that use the student’s webcam, keyboard, screen and Artificial Intelligence to detect suspicious activity.  Under the new arrangements, cheating has never been easier.[i]

Unable to catch students cheating when sitting exams at home, universities look at the output to identify suspected misconduct.  Are some answers suspiciously similar, in particular in respect of errors?  Does an exam result seem too good for a particular student?  In one case, a postgraduate student was accused of contract cheating because the examiner said he had never read such an amazing essay on the subject.  The student protested her innocence but was found guilty.

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Three things trouble me most about the current situation.

First, it is overwhelmingly likely that only a tiny minority of students have been caught.  Even in ordinary times, most cheats get away with it but the detection rate is likely to be far lower when exams take place at a student’s home.  It is easy for a student to contact another using Snapchat: “what did you get for question 2a?”.  Those who are caught often lament “It’s so unfair.  Why have I been caught when pretty much everyone is doing it?”  This may be so, but cheating is also unfair to those students who did not cheat.

Second, the volume of cases combined with the limited training of the staff who make decisions about guilt and innocence cast doubt on the fairness of the decision-making process.  Some universities are so flooded with cases that they have abandoned hearings in favour of short, written questionnaires.  This may be quick but it is not an effective way to find the truth.

With few exceptions, universities use a civil standard of proof in determining guilt, so ‘the balance of probabilities’.  If two students made the same error in answer to a question, say 12 x 67 = 816 (instead of 804), does that mean they colluded?  Each vigorously deny the charge and explain that, in a hurry, they accidentally typed 12 x 68 in the calculator.  This is possible, as we have all mistyped things on a calculator, but unlikely.  Thus a Panel may find the students guilty if using the ‘balance of probabilities’ standard but not guilty if using ‘beyond reasonable doubt’.  As it is better for a guilty person to escape than an innocent person to be convicted, I am in favour of adopting the more demanding standard of proof.

Third, despite the potentially life-changing consequences of a finding of academic misconduct, there is little support for accused students and innocent students will be found guilty.

Student unions, who in some cases have furloughed advisers, are short of staff and do not always have the time or the expertise to provide meaningful help to students.  For students, a finding of guilt can result in a lower degree classification, repeating a year, a Fitness to Practise procedure, suspension, expulsion and, for some, the end of a long-standing ambition of working as a doctor, lawyer, vet, pharmacist or other profession.  In the universities’ zeal to punish cheats, there is no doubt that innocent students have been found guilty with catastrophic consequences for their future.

 

If I were a student, I would have little faith in the university justice system which is creaking under the workload and not always sophisticated in its approach to cases.  I would record myself sitting the exam with a camera pointing at me and another at the computer screen.

If I were advising universities, I would recommend investing in online proctoring services, providing rigorous training to staff on the conduct of investigations and natural justice (delivered by practising lawyers or judges), ensuring student unions have adequate funds to recruit enough advisers and train them, changing the standard of proof to ‘beyond reasonable doubt’, and checking that the academic misconduct process was fair in all respects.

Dr Daniel Sokol is a barrister, former University lecturer and founder of Alpha Academic Appeals (www.academicappeals.co.uk)

@DanielSokol9

See my Overview of Cheating Methods and Academic Misconduct In Online Exams: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qk2JVNi5FUc (last accessed 31st July 2020)

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