Examination of Witnesses (Questions 443
WEDNESDAY 6 MAY 2009
Chairman: We welcome very much our second
panel this morning: Sally Hunt, the General Secretary for the
University and College Unionwelcome SallyDr 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
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,
possiblywe do not have the staffing to deal with it. The
other part of me is, also, when I do the hearingsalthough
I do not tolerate cheating remotelyI 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 unreservedlythose
pressures have increased. We also deal now with a situation where
it is much easier to plagiarisecut-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 Swanseait
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 Omanthe Sultan of Swingwho 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
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 moneyif I can be completely clearthat 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 centso 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
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 centit is five per
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 thisin fact, precisely the opposite.
Dr Harris: I hope to come back to that