Sarah Churchwell: No wonder plagiarism comes naturally to students

Share
Related Topics

Professor Geoffrey Alderman's report acknowledging the elephant in the classroom of British higher education – the culture of lenience including the permissive marking of non-European students, tolerance of plagiarism, and rampant grade inflation – has been greeted by a chorus of corroborative cheers by frustrated academics, and high time, too. The Conservative universities spokesman promptly called for an "urgent investigation into the system for monitoring degree standards". Great.

There is actually nothing feeble about the existing monitoring procedures: in fact, they are so robust they are overpowering us. Like the NHS, higher education has a surfeit of managers, and a culture that emphasises results over processes. Focusing on monitoring systems would only exacerbate the problem. We need to look not at league tables but at spreadsheets.

University funding derives from external grant bodies (which individual academics must apply for and statistically are unlikely to win), and from the Government, which allots monies based on a ranking system called the RAE (Research Assessment Exercise). The higher a given department's RAE score, the more money it wins; the more money it has, the more it hires people who keep up its RAE score, in a circle that only the most cynical could consider virtuous.

Meanwhile, those departments that fare less well in the RAE are trapped in a downward funding spiral, unable to generate the money to hire faculty who will raise their ranking. So unless you're in the Russell Group – and even for many of them – you need to find other sources of funding. British universities are belatedly turning to alumni giving, but most universities are frankly hopeless at fundraising, and the national sense of entitlement to free universal education hardly prompts people who view top-up fees as highway robbery voluntarily to hand universities more money.

Which leads to the final source of funding: student fees. For entirely obvious, if primarily political reasons, the Government currently sets a cap on top-up fees of £3,000 for European students. But it allows universities to set fees for non-European students at their own discretion – they currently range from around £10,000 to £18,000 per annum. No wonder universities are admitting international students whose qualifications are questionable.

The more ethical salve their consciences with academic and language support for students whose English is so substandard that they need pictures to communicate; the more unethical go so far, rumour has it, as using departmental funds to pay English postgraduates to "help" international fee-paying postgraduates produce their theses.

Although Professor Alderman scoffed at the idea "that international students who plagiarise should be treated more leniently than British students because of differential cultural norms", in my own experience it does seem to be the case that different cultures place less emphasis on originality than we do. I have encountered many Asian students, accustomed to being rewarded for parroting information, who were genuinely bewildered, and distraught, at being reprimanded.

In this, they increasingly resemble UK students, who now respond to essay assignments by asking tutors expectantly, pens at the ready, what they should say. This is the result of "affirmative teaching" at GCSE level: students are told which points to make, where to find their information, how to structure their essays, and then they are given As. They believe cutting and pasting quotations from a website is taking notes. No wonder plagiarism seems natural to so many of them.

But it doesn't explain why they aren't getting punished: a recent report showed that in one year almost 10,000 cases of plagiarism were recorded in Britain, but fewer than 200 students were expelled. The notorious case of Michael Gunn, a student at the University of Kent at Canterbury, who admitted to long-term and systematic plagiarism and then sued Kent for not telling him not to plagiarise, probably holds the key.

The less selective recruitment of international students and protection of chronic cheaters isn't fair to anyone. It isn't fair to international students who are paying fees for work they aren't capable of completing; or to domestic students who are effectively being held to higher standards, just as the protection of cheaters' rights effectively discriminates against non-cheaters.

And it isn't fair to academics trying to do an honest job, whose hands are tied by administrators and politicians, while being pressured to fund the university, whether through their own research, grants, or admitting students whose qualifications are in doubt. And the last people who should profess to be shocked at such cynicism are the politicians.

The writer is a senior lecturer in American literature and culture at the University of East Anglia

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Dublin

£13676.46 - £16411.61 per annum + OTE: SThree: SThree Trainee Recruitment Cons...

Ashdown Group: Marketing or Business Graduate Opportunity - Norwich - £22,000

£18000 - £22000 per annum + training: Ashdown Group: Business and Marketing Gr...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + Commission: SThree: Are you great at building rela...

Ashdown Group: Database Analyst - Birmingham - £22,000 plus benefits

£20000 - £22000 per annum + excellent benefits: Ashdown Group: Application Sup...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Labour leader Ed Miliband unveils Labour's pledges carved into a stone plinth in Hastings  

Election 2015: Smash the two-party system! Smash the voting system!

Armando Iannucci
Tactical voting is a necessary evil of the current first-past-the-post system, where voters vote against what they do not want rather than in favour of what they do  

Election 2015: Voting tactically has become more fraught in new political order

Michael Ashcroft
General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

Flesh in Venice

Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
11 best anti-ageing day creams

11 best anti-ageing day creams

Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

Juventus vs Real Madrid

Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power