Universities told to stop internet cheats

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Universities have been warned to clamp down on students who cheat because of fears that they are devaluing the status of British degrees.

Universities have been warned to clamp down on students who cheat because of fears that they are devaluing the status of British degrees.

Guidelines sent to all universities warn that plagiarism is likely to rise given the amount of easily accessed work on the internet and growing external pressure from the need to work part-time while studying.

"There is evidence to support widely expressed concerns that student plagiarism in the UK is common and is probably becoming more so," concluded the report by Jisc, the Joint Information Systems Committee, which advises higher education on technology.

It warned that a minority of students deliberately set out to cheat but said that there was no way of measuring the problem. "We can only guess as to the frequency of behaviours such as paying ghost writers, wholesale downloading of coursework, or copying from other students", said the report, Deterring, Detecting and Dealing with Student Plagiarism.

"A decision to plagiarise may be associated with increasing pressures on students arising from, for example, undertaking paid work, heavier coursework load, or lack of personal organisation skills," the report said.

"When stresses rise, students see plagiarism as a reasonable and reasonably risk-free way out of difficulties."

The report cites research from 2002 which used anti-cheating software to analyse 1,770 pieces of students' work from five Australian universities. It found that 8.8 per cent contained more than 25 per cent of unattributed material from the internet. Two pieces of work were found to comprise more than 75 per cent of downloaded material.

The Plagiarism Advisory Service (PAS), based at Northumbria University, has estimated that a quarter of university students have cheated by lifting material from the internet.

Most plagiarism was "accidental" and occurred because students misunderstood or misused academic conventions, the Jisc report said. However, deliberate cheats caused the most concern because they threatened to devalue the British university system.

"Students who deliberately cheat or engage in fraudulent behaviour are characterised as threatening the values and beliefs that underpin academic work, angering and discouraging other students who do not use such tactics, devaluing the integrity of UK awards and qualifications, and distorting the efforts of lecturers who wish to teach rather than police others' actions," it said.

The report calls on universities to nominate members of staff to deal with cases of plagiarism. But it recommends employing a carrot, rather than stick, approach: "Catch-and- punish approaches are self- defeating in that they absorb huge amounts of staff time, do not lessen the overall incidence of plagiarism and deflect students from a focus on learning to one devoted to not breaking rules or not getting caught."

Last month, a leading vice-chancellor warned that plagiarism was increasing partly because universities had failed to equip students with a basic sense of morality.

Steven Schwartz, vice- chancellor of Brunel University, who chaired the Government's working party on university admissions, said: "Plagiarism, incivility, rudeness and reneging on legitimate debts - all of these are depressingly common among university students," he said.

"I believe that it is time for universities once again to articulate a moral vision of what they are trying to achieve, and live up to it."