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Sarah Churchwell: No wonder plagiarism comes naturally to students

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