Students and Universities - Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee Contents

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 443 - 459)



  Chairman: We welcome very much our second panel this morning: Sally Hunt, the General Secretary for the University and College Union—welcome Sally—Dr Natalie Fenton, from Goldsmiths, the University of London, Veronica Killen from Northumbria University and Dr Gavin Reid from the University of Leeds. It will be interesting to see whether you agree with your Vice-Chancellor! Without further ado I will ask Ian Gibson to begin the questioning, and he is going to leave out car parking for this session.

  Q443  Dr Gibson: Allegations have been made and are being made about grades being inflated to satisfy people from other countries, international development, and so on, and, also, plagiarism is rife and you must turn your back on it and not worry too much about it; at the end of the day, it is getting money in and making sure that the number of students is there. Discuss. Sally Hunt, please.

  Sally Hunt: I think the first thing that I would like to start with, Ian, is that in talking about grade inflation, talking about plagiarism, actually, what you are really getting to the heart of is whether the people that we represent within UCU are able to carry out their professional duties in a manner that they know is right and proper. It will not surprise any of you on this Committee to hear me say that I have every confidence in the professional abilities and the professional commitment of academic and academic-related staff throughout the sector; what I do think we all have concerns about is their ability to deliver the standards that they know are necessary for students to get the experience that they absolutely deserve and need.

  Q444  Dr Gibson: Sally, would they know plagiarism if they saw it?

  Sally Hunt: Yes.

  Q445  Dr Gibson: How would they know that? How would you detect it? I do not know—

  Sally Hunt: Would you not?

  Q446  Dr Gibson: I think Gordon Brown plagiarises everything some of us say.

  Sally Hunt: I think he thinks the same of you sometimes, Ian, but what I would say is the reason that we have brought the group of people we have here is because what we wanted to make sure you had were academics who were actually doing the teaching, doing the research and actually doing an awful lot of the assessment that we know you need to talk about. I would like to bring Natalie and Gavin into this because this is something that they have a lot of experience of. I would say that I hear an awful lot of our members who, very clearly, are able to spot the difference between plagiarism and original work. I would also say that there is a huge range in what that word means, and I think that is the part that we do have to talk about. That is about the learning experience and what the students understand to be the type of work they have to deliver. Sometimes that is a very blurred line, but with your permission, Ian, could I ask Natalie and Gavin to come in?

  Dr Fenton: I am in charge of all plagiarism cases in our department. I reckon 10 to 20 per cent of all assignments are plagiarised. We do offer extensive advice on what plagiarism is and how to avoid it to all students at all levels through all course handbooks, and they have to sign bits of paper when they hand work in saying they understand those criteria and they have not plagiarised. We ask for electronic copies of all assessments handed in and they are put through plagiarism detection software. If, at the point of marking, they are suspected of plagiarism then they are put through the software and then we pick them up. We probably pick up about two per cent of what I imagine is 10 to 20 per cent.

  Q447  Dr Gibson: What is that in round numbers? Is this Goldsmiths?

  Dr Fenton: This is only my department, I have to say, but on each hand-in session there are 2,000 essays that come in and we have two hand-in sessions every year. So if you are dealing with 4,000 assessments I would spend my entire year doing nothing else but plagiarism hearings if we detected more. So there is one part of me that thinks: "Thank God we don't detect more", because we could not deal with it, possibly—we do not have the staffing to deal with it. The other part of me is, also, when I do the hearings—although I do not tolerate cheating remotely—I have some sympathy for the students who are working, often, full-time to cover the fees and just in desperate situations plagiarise. It is not a very pleasant exercise to go through days' worth of hearings with students sobbing, and coming out with very real circumstances. Of course, we have a zero-tolerance approach where there is no excuse for cheating, I am sorry.

  Q448  Dr Gibson: Is it increasing in numbers from, maybe, 10 years ago, with the pressures now on students to be successful and to gain something from the fees they have to pay, and so on? Has that encouraged plagiarism, in your opinion, numbers?

  Dr Fenton: Undoubtedly, but there are other pressures as well. I say that unreservedly—those pressures have increased. We also deal now with a situation where it is much easier to plagiarise—cut-and-paste is very, very straight forward. That raises all sorts of problems and particularly for international students who come in with very little support, often, or support systems within universities that cannot deliver adequate infrastructure, really, for the levels of overseas students that we have.

  Q449  Chairman: Could we extend this to the other witnesses?

  Dr Reid: My experience is that certainly plagiarism levels have increased, but on the science side it is perhaps a slightly different problem than having a big pile of essays; we are often in a situation where there are right answers and wrong answers and it is very easy to distinguish between the two, and it is sometimes difficult to understand how a student has arrived at the right solution and whether they have done that independently or in a group. I have had very nasty plagiarism cases in my department to deal with; I am Director of Learning and Teaching and I have overall responsibility for those issues. Almost invariably, the student's excuse was pressure of time, the deadline coming up and they had to work 17 hours that week to pay the rent, and really regretted doing it but in a moment of weakness took a piece of work from somebody else, and handed the same thing in. It is devastating.

  Q450  Dr Gibson: What is it like being an academic that whistle-blows, if you like? How are you treated by the authorities in the university? You may remember Colwyn Williamson ran for years against the University of Swansea—it was a very famous case, and books have been written about it. What happens if you do blow the whistle? How do you do that? How would you do it if you suspected plagiarism?

  Dr Reid: There are open, transparent policies in my institution and the university lays down precisely what happens at first-year, second-year and third-year level and the penalties that need to be imposed, whether it be a school-level offence or whether it needs to be referred up to the university for treatment. I do not think it is an issue of turning a blind eye or not acting properly. If colleagues have an issue in my department they bring it to me for advice.

  Q451  Dr Gibson: If there is evidence that someone from Oman—the Sultan of Swing—who is building a building for you at the university, finds that one of the students from his part of the world is up to be looked at for plagiarism, is there pressure, any evidence for that, in your experience?

  Dr Reid: I have never seen any, and I would not hesitate in exposing such a situation.

  Q452  Chairman: What happens if the grades are dropping as a result of your intervention in terms of plagiarism, so that your marks drop and that affects the standing of the department?

  Dr Reid: The number of cases is not such that that would have any overall bearing on the statistics. I do not feel under any pressure at all to bear that in mind.

  Q453  Dr Gibson: What is the union's policy on this, Sally?

  Sally Hunt: It is very straightforward; plagiarism is wrong because the standards of British universities are absolutely key to making sure that we maintain the future of our members' jobs. It is a very simple equation for us. What is more complicated for us, as my colleagues have pointed out, is actually rationalising why there is an increase. Some of it is about detection, definitely, as Natalie has said; some of it, though, is about the pressures that are on students. What we are having to say, in the round, in terms of students' experience, which does impact on this, is as important, because it is about: do they have access to quality teaching? Do they have access to quality support? It is not a simple problem.

  Q454  Dr Gibson: This last one: what about higher up the chain, as it were, and academics plagiarising each other's work? Is that on the increase as well, in your opinion? There have been famous cases there, but from your experience of protection of your membership.

  Sally Hunt: From our experience, in terms of academics challenging who has been the originator of work (I put it that way), the union has always worked on the basis that we will make sure that there is representation for either party, and we do the same now. We have not, in terms of our case work, Ian, had any particular increase. What we do have pressure on is academics who are being put under a great deal of pressure from their employers to deliver more and more, and I think that is more of a concern to me as opposed to them stealing each other's work, because that is something that we deal with. It is about the type of pressure that they are under in order to deliver both research and teaching at the same time.

  Q455  Dr Gibson: Who looks at it within the university? Suppose somebody does nick somebody's research results; say it is a PhD student and they are nicked by their professor and published in the professor's name (do we not all do it!). How do you stop that? What if a student comes to you and complains? What do you do about it? What happens in the university system? Or do you go to The Times Higher first?

  Sally Hunt: Would I? The honest answer is that I think it varies, not only from the universities but it varies from department to department. A lot of that can be about governance that is or is not there within a particular university. It can be as simple as the standards that are set within a particular department, and it can be about the level of money—if I can be completely clear—that an individual is seen to bring into a particular university. That, in my trade union experience, has genuinely, I think, had an impact as to whether there has been a fair hearing on that. There are different systems in place. I think that, in the main, people are very respectful of each other's work, but what you have is a structure that actually supports those who bring in most into the university, and that worries me because the reporting systems are not there and, certainly, the governance issues in terms of academics having oversight, I think, are becoming less prevalent as the pressure on managerialism and privatisation comes into the sector. That is my honest view.

  Q456  Dr Harris: Dr Fenton, you said 10 to 20 per cent but you only detect two per cent—so a fifth to a tenth of what there is. How do you know it is 10 to 20 per cent?

  Dr Fenton: These are the calculations that other institutions have put on it, that say, actually, if you looked across the board, if we assessed that, if we did put absolutely every form of assessment that we have through this software, that is what we would suggest is likely to turn up.

  Q457  Dr Harris: We have not had that evidence. Can you send us the references of what these other institutions are saying?

  Dr Fenton: Yes, sure.

  Q458  Dr Harris: Are you saying it is just for your course, as journalists? Perhaps that is unfair; you do media studies. There are not any here, I hope! You are confident that in every institution in every subject this is a real problem, even if it is not 10 per cent—it is five per cent?

  Dr Fenton: I think it is a real problem, although I could not speak for the STEM subjects, really. It is to do with the pressures and it is to do with the form now of new media that allows you to do it.

  Q459  Dr Harris: This is not out in the public sphere, at all, I think. Do you think that if people said that was the case, their institution would frown upon that because it might look as if, particularly if the press picked on them for being honest, that they had a particular problem, and that their standards were not everything they might be set up to be?

  Dr Fenton: Everybody wants to brand their institution in a particular way, but I support what Gavin says, that actually systems within institutions are fairly robust. There is no way in which we are told that we should not be reporting this—in fact, precisely the opposite.

  Dr Harris: I hope to come back to that issue.

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