The United Kingdom is suffering a cheating epidemic fuelled by the influx of international students, with almost 50,000 students at British universities caught cheating in the past three years, according to an investigation by The Times newspaper based on responses to more than 100 freedom of information requests.
The investigation found that students from outside of the European Union were more than four times as likely to cheat in exams and coursework.
At Queen Mary University of London 75% of postgraduates found to have plagiarised were from overseas with a third from China, the newspaper reported.
At Staffordshire University, more than half of cheating cases involved international students, who make up 5% of the student body.
The Times examined data from 129 universities. The data revealed that 11 universities recorded 1,000 or more cheats over the three-year period examined and the problem of cheating was highest at the University of Kent, with 1,947 cases of cheating. But the University of Westminster followed closely behind with 1,933 cases, and Oxford Brookes University had 1,711 cases.
However, across the board, less than one in a hundred of those found guilty of academic misconduct were kicked out – a total of 362 students.
The Times’ investigation found that students from outside of the EU were disproportionately represented among those caught cheating. Among 70 universities which provided data on international students who cheated, those students were involved in 35% of cheating cases but made up only 12% of the student body, the newspaper reported.
At the University of Sheffield, three in four of the 59 students caught cheating came from overseas, although they made up only 18% of the student body.
The Times said the data is likely to underestimate the true extent of cheating because of the high number of unregulated “essay mill” websites offering to produce work for students for a fee – up to £500 (US$726) for a 4,000 word dissertation.
Apart from the use of essay mill websites, more traditional methods of cheating found included starting the exam before the official start time or carrying on after the set time had finished, smuggling in notes and using toilet breaks to look up answers. Lifting content from other sources during coursework was also a common problem.
There were also at least five cases at different universities where a student tried to arrange for someone to take the exam in their place and pass themselves off as the intended sitter, the newspaper reported.
Growth of essay mills
One factor that may be fuelling the problem of cheating is the growth of essay mills.
Thomas Lancaster and Robert Clarke, both academics from Birmingham City University, have been researching this problem since 2005 and have identified 30,000 cases of students paying other people to write their essays for them, Lancaster told International Business Times UK.
The duo have identified India as one of the key countries supplying writers and workers to help students with contact cheating, because there are many people there with a high level of English and the cost is lower than for a contractor in the UK.
Clarke told the Hindustan Times that one 'contractor' based in Kolkata has made over 200 postings and records show that assignments from the UK, the US, Australia, India and Sri Lanka have been processed.
"We’ve observed a lot of people from India bidding to complete academic work for students. They make offers that are very appealing to students from the UK; they’ll do assignments for what is a low price for a UK student, but a good living wage for the work in India,” he said.
He said there had been a “significant increase” in the number of attempts made online, particularly in the past two years, and India was a major source in this activity. However, it is not the only one: others include Pakistan, Nigeria and Kenya.
“We have seen workers from India advertising that they have degrees from UK universities, so students hire them with the knowledge that they are familiar with the UK education system,” he told the Hindustan Times.
Harming Britain's brand
The Times, in an editorial, warned that its cheating findings could harm “Britain’s valuable higher education brand” by undermining the perception that it constitutes an “uncompromised gold standard” – which is key to attracting thousands of students from all over the world.
Universities UK, the vice-chancellors’ body, said it has not seen the figures on which The Times based its report, but pointed out that the issue of copying and cheating is not new in higher education and is taken “extremely seriously” by universities.
Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of Universities UK, told University World News: “The higher education sector has done a lot of work to tackle this issue and universities have become more experienced in detecting and dealing with such forms of cheating.”
She said submitting work written by someone else is cheating and devalues the efforts of students who work hard to achieve their degrees. It also damages the student who commits the fraud as they will not benefit from the research and learning experience.
“Universities have severe penalties for students found to be submitting work that is not their own. Such academic misconduct by a student would be a breach of an institution's disciplinary regulations. Penalties can range from receiving zero marks for a piece of work to, in serious cases, being expelled from the university.
“With information now so readily available online, it has become increasingly important to engage with students on this topic and to underline from the start of courses what constitutes cheating and how it can be avoided.”
Universities UK stressed that briefing students on enrolment about what constitutes cheating applies as much to the growing body of international students as it does to home students.
A spokesperson from Queen Mary University of London said the university expects high academic standards and takes "extensive steps" to ensure that all students are aware of the academic regulations relating to plagiarism.
"We take all allegations of plagiarism extremely seriously and have robust procedures in place to investigate each case. Where an offence is found to have been committed, appropriate action is taken,” the spokesperson said.
Noel Morrison, Director of Student and Academic Services at Staffordshire University, said all cases of academic misconduct were dealt with "thoroughly and appropriately".
His university had provided information to The Times on cases of academic misconduct over three years. In two of those years more cases involved international students than home/EU students. But there was actually a dramatic fall in the total number of cases in 2014-15, with the ratio of cases for home/EU students versus overseas students falling from 197:316 in 2013-14 to 166:75 in 2014-15.
Morrison said the large reduction, particularly in relation to international students, "was the result of initiatives put in place by the university to further support international students to study successfully in UK higher education”.
A spokesperson from the University of Sheffield said the university is committed to the highest standards of academic conduct and regards the use of unfair means – for example plagiarism, collusion and cheating in examinations – as a very serious matter.
"Our programmes of study all include guidance for students on appropriate practice and our preparatory courses for international students include academic skills. The university has systems in place for identifying suspected plagiarism or other forms of cheating, and clearly defined and robust disciplinary procedures for dealing with proven cases.
“From a student population of 24,000 with numerous assessments for each student, the number of cheating instances is relatively low.”
Receive UWN's free weekly e-newsletters