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David Gillies on the non-punishment of academic cheating

A relentless and seemingly unstoppable trend in education in Britain is something which I call, at my Education Blog, sovietisation. This means: desperate quota fulfilment frenzies, and, increasingly, statistical measures of educational success which bear no relation to reality. In a word: cheating. Officially encouraged. With the politicians themselves implicated heavily, because they no more want to face the truth about how well they are really doing than anyone else does.

My latest sovietisation posting contained a big slice from this Telegraph article by Frank Furedi about cheating at university, and David Gillies added this comment by way of confirmation of this disturbing trend. The only thing I have cut from his comment was the brief apology at the end of it for going on at such length, which I have assured him was quite unnecessary.

This corresponds exactly to my experiences in academia. As a doctoral student, I would augment my meagre income by acting as a ‘demonstrator’ (i.e. teaching assistant). I would help guide students in the lab courses through the trickier points of the thing they were studying and give them hints when they got stuck. I also had the responsibility of marking the reports they subsequently prepared.

At the end of one term, I was given the task of marking the results of a fairly major project that one class had undertaken. After about ten of them I noticed an ominous trend. Phrases and in some cases entire paragraphs were copied verbatim between reports. As I proceeded, I started to notice that there were several different, sometimes overlapping variants of the report. I began to be able to discern a sort of taxonomic structure – in the end I was almost able to ascribe a sort of evolutionary tree to the plagiarised reports, rather like philologists do with missing or partial texts of ancient manuscripts.

By now both worried and annoyed, I wrote a detailed memorandum, with copious examples of the suspect work, heavily footnoted and with an explanation of my hypothetical taxonomy (I seem to recall it took me about three days to write). I went to the lecturer who was running the course and said, “we have a serious problem.” He looked at my memo and promptly got the Head of Department involved. The Head sent my report over to Admin, along with some thoughts of his own and the lecturer. And then – nothing. The degree of plagiarism varied from student to student. The most egregious example was one in which, as far as I could tell, two students had run off two copies of the same report with simply their names substituted. For these I recommended expulsion. For the remainder, I recommended sanctions ranging from failing that module of the course to failing the course entirely. Most severe sanction actually imposed: loss of marks for that module and a written warning put on file. Most escaped scot-free.

I was sickened. Just a few years earlier, as part of our induction to studying Physics at Imperial College, we were given an afternoon’s worth of lectures on integrity, ethics and the scientific method. We were told in no uncertain terms that not only would cheating get us kicked out, it would end our scientific careers. And yet, in the mid ’90’s, students at a University in the north of England could plagiarise with near impunity.

The reason? Money. Every lost student was a lost grant. So shackled is the University system to the filthy teat of Government (especially post the hare-brained notion that more than a small fraction of a nation’s youth is capable of conducting study at degree level) that chasing grants is the primary, secondary and tertiary priority of universities. Teaching and research quality is important only inasmuch as it can be used to garner a tick in the right box in the latest assessment exercise. Only a complete divorce of higher education from government can halt and reverse this trend.

UPDATE: See also this confessional memoir by Natalie Solent.

20 comments to David Gillies on the non-punishment of academic cheating

  • toolkien

    especially post the hare-brained notion that more than a small fraction of a nation’s youth is capable of conducting study at degree level) that chasing grants is the primary, secondary and tertiary priority of universities. Teaching and research quality is important only inasmuch as it can be used to garner a tick in the right box in the latest assessment exercise. Only a complete divorce of higher education from government can halt and reverse this trend.

    There is another side to this picture. Those of us out in the real world after getting an undergrad degree, but also getting certifications outside the educational meritocracy (e.g. I’m a CPA). Employers hunger for the best and brightest, creating a demand for prospective employees with MBA’s. Now everyone and their cousin has an MBA, which is about as worthy as if came from a cracker jack box. Institutions of ‘higher’ learning are giddy as schoolgirls to oblige meeting the demand as it kicks more $ into the coffers. Dumb down the content so the lunk in the 70th percentile can get one and everyone is happy. Except those of us who already have a solid degree, passing certifications, and plenty of real world experience. At some point, there has to be a cut-off on what a new stamp of approval can get one. At some point the processes, education and real world experience, need to speak for themselves, and not the next smiley faced placard given by a consortium of money hounds. Pretty soon we’ll all be doctors, as long as the price is right.

  • Monica


    Something similar would happen at my Australian university. The commerce (business, management, marketing etc) department’s full-fee paying overseas students would fund the budgets for most of the rest of the university.

    Although generally hard working, it was known that an ‘Asian’ student (predominant home region) would never be expelled for cheating, plagiarising or handing in work that was pretty much incomprehensible in English. The reaction this engendered was, predictably, hostile.

    One of the things that was constantly a bone of contention and equally as demoralizing was adjusting students marks in order to make them fall into a standard distribution. This meant that a whole class could not pass – no matter how strong the students. It also meant that whole classes did not fail – no matter how poor they were academically. This has to be one of the worst applications of statistics imaginable – forcing a random population into a bell curve for sheer convenience where grades were a reflection of peer performance as much as individual performance.

  • Thank god I went to an inexpensive mid-western university that was for the most part, non-research oriented. Professors were REQUIRED to teach their classes. We were even required to attend (this irritated a lot of students, and not all professors took it too seriously). Professors could not have their TA’s teach classes for them (except for a few classes like, physics 101 or math 108). Classes were usually small (except for the big dumb required lecture courses), and having gotten to know many of my professors, I don’t think any of them would have tolerated plagiarism like that (I doubt this has changed, I graduated less than a year ago).

  • I recently taught under similar circumstances at the Australian Defence Force Academy, a part of the University of NSW. ( I thought of anonymising this, but the whole idea is not to conceal unpleasant truths).

    Anyway… official NSW Uni policy was to give a zero grade for the year (not just the course) to anyone caught plagiarising, for a first offence. Pretty awful for any student, but a career-ending one in this case.

    I taught Computer Science to first years, and collaboration in small teams on tricky problems was encouraged, as this more accurately reflects the realities of life outside University. In fact, how to do this is something worth learning in its own right.

    But some people crossed the line, often indavertantly. If in the headers of their program, they said something like “J.Doe and M.Row worked on this” then they were obviously not trying to conceal anything, and if there was too great a similarity between the two answers, then I’d write a long note on each one, clarifying the guidelines. Basically, collaborate on the analysis, then go away, design and code separately. Then peer-review together to correct mistakes.

    For a first offence, if there were 2 answers uncomfortably similar, I’d take the mark – say 70% – and divide by the number of assignments – usually 2 – so each got 35%. Though if the cheating was obvious and intentional, a zero or negative mark was given. 2 times in 3 years I had to divide by 3 (One had just gotten out of hospital, and was way behind). Once in 3 years I gave a negative mark.

    For a second offence, there’d be a letter to the Commandant, expulsion, etc. Very much more serious than merely being suspended or sent down from a normal University, we’re talking military discipline offences here, fines, dishonourable discharge, the works.

    Because of this, we were ready to give the benefit of the doubt to anyone who had a remotely plausible excuse. The first time.

    Whether we taught them that, as future military officers, personal honour and integrity were paramount, I don’t honestly know. Perhaps all we taught them was not to get caught.

  • Jake

    I think that fraud is rampant in the US educational establishment because nothing is done to the criminals who commit the fraud. Most of the time, these crooked educators and administrators do not even lose their jobs.

    These people are not only robbing the taxpayers they are robbing the students of a better life.

    If they were prosecuted and sent to jail, it might cleanup the fraudulent morass that our educational establishment has become.

  • The Wobbly Guy

    The saying goes, “Taking from one source is plagiarism; taking from many sources is called research.”

    I do it all the time too for my chemistry practical lab reports in the past, but with the firm knowledge that I have to know what’s going on and why. I used my own experimental data from the experiments(I did go through them even though some took literally hours to complete, particularly organic reactions) but copied the discussion and analysis parts. Copying blindly is very dangerous.

    The trick is in copying the good parts, picking out the more relevant points and then inserting some of my own pertinent observations. I’ve also run across errors in the original scripts, and corrected them. Then my copy gets passed onto future cohorts.

    Oops. Hey, that’s evolution for you!

    But at the end of it all, there’s still the exam. So I had better know the topic from head to toe. And more than a few lecturers got a better idea: They would interview us on our reports. The interviews were fun. Real fun. So fun that they felt like the Spanish Inquisition.

    As long as the understanding of the student is there, who cares? Big whoop. The point of practical experiments, I’ve realised, is simply to run students through experiments which they would promptly forget once two years have passed. There are those who would do better(like me); they did as I did, copying while checking the results at every stage for errors. Then there are the others, who would copy wholesale and get the passing grade, but die horribly when it came to understanding the nitty gritty inner workings of the experiments.

    So what? It doesn’t matter. The experiments stopped once everybody got into the fourth year, doing actual experimentation for their honors project. Then it was honesty all the way.

    Farce, you might say? As long as understanding is reached, does it really matter how it is reached, hmmm?

    The Wobbly Guy

  • David Gillies

    Blimey, I’m famous (hem, hem).

    Actually, to clarify some of the comments above: I’m a big fan of code reuse, and even more so of algorithm reuse. Teamwork and delegation are essential, as my colleagues and subordinates know. Right now, people pay me non-trivial amounts of money to write software for them, and I’ll take every angle I can. Reinventing the wheel is no virtue. But this was out-and-out cheating. I think the thing that most got my goat was the gulf between the punishment I would have expected (and deserved), and the ones that were actually meted out, even though only eight or so years separated me and the students in question. I really was very disillusioned by this incident. The subsequent constipated gavotte that the whole department danced in the RAE year did little to restore my faith. But that’s another story…

  • Charles Copeland

    Congratulations – an absolutely fascinating (and frightening) posting by David Gillies. The only consolation is that most of these plagiarists will probably end up as wine-waiters anyhow, regardless of their formal qualifications.

  • Woody

    I can see I’ve had very similar experiences to you. After the shock the first year, I just accepted that I should keep quiet as it was much easier for the system to eliminate me than deal with the problem. When I received identical work by two or more students, I used to take out my revenge by giving them obviously different marks. They couldn’t complain.

  • Dave

    Plagurise! Let no one elses work evade your eyes! But, please, to always call it research…

    I’m not sure this is a government funding issue. Universities are loath to kick out people who are paying them money, period. My wife just finished an MBA at a top 10 UK school – there were perhaps a half dozen people who should not have been there, they sponged off others, they cheated, all sorts of things – but the course kept them on until the end. THey did fail a couple of them, but some passed. The issue being no University wants to lose £18K in fees.

    I remember going for an interview at Salford University in about 1986, the guy showing us around mentioned that in his opinion “the last original lab report was written about 4 years ago…”.

    This is wrong, but nothing new.

  • Dave

    Sorry, missed out the necessary and obvious credit to Tom Lehrer there…

  • The Wobbly Guy

    Now that we’ve identified the problem, as it were, what could and should be done about it?

    Like Dave, I can’t really see divorcing the government from the process would help much; the universities are as much corporations as any other business, except their product, degrees, is a rather more nebulous concept. People pay for degrees, they get it. As long as they can pay enough money, they can get whatever degree they want, no matter how much they actually suck and don’t deserve it.

    A degree is a product not just of how much money you’ve paid; it’s also a measure of how much intelligence you’ve been endowed with and your determination.

    Unless there is some force, like an accepted industry standard set by the biggest firms, that sets and enforces the rules for universities to follow. But that’s another kettle of fish, and I’m sure others will point out the possible complications.

    Governments can set the bar as high or as low as they want, but at least they can set the bar. A government that sets the bar low would reap the consequences, as does the people who voted for it.

  • David Gillies

    Why is Government funding if tertiary education bad? Here’s why:

    An MBA from Harvard Business School has a huge amount of cachet. It is a brand that is very valuable. It is absolutely in HBS’s interests to ensure that nothing is seen to detract from the quality of its degrees, and it therefore has a very sound commercial reason to ensure that you can’t just ‘buy’ one (this is another nail in the coffin of the idea that GWB is a dummy – HBS doesn’t make exceptions for anyone, and it’s a tough course). Alumni of HBS are also keen to see that standards are unimpeachable.

    For government-funded institutions, the link between quality and finance is much more attenuated. Lack of a pricing mechanism means misallocation of scarce funding. Governments are unable to adequately oversee universities for all the standard Rothbardian reasons (in essence, they’re not true consumers of the service provided). If students were forced to pay for their education up front, as they should, then as customers they would have a strong incentive to ensure that their expensive qualifications were not sullied by suspicions of plagiarism. It would also have the salutary effect of eliminating demand for Noddy degrees like B.A. in Golf Course Management with Eastenders Studies.

  • The Wobbly Guy

    Perhaps if governments have another benchmark by which to measure educational standards?

    I know the Singaporean government is obsessed with education for almost purely economic purposes. Our policies live and die by how they are able to contribute to economic growth(it borders on obsession). This is probably why standards don’t seem to be lowered, because a lax system with low quality can and will lead to serious economic repercussions down the road.

    Governments which recognise this will have this massive incentive to maintain standards and tighten the screws on quality, because the success or failure of a government is measured by the standard of living of the people it governs.

    Anyway, total public funding of tertiary institutions is a bad thing, but to make it completely private isn’t the solution either, since it’ll then be based principally on the ability to pay, with the attendent problems. What we want is the happy mean where students have to bear part of the costs but which does not price out those who are financially disadvantaged.

    Education in modern times has been described as the great social leveller. To base its availability on the ability to pay will give this role in modern society a huge hit. Of course, the very role of universities has completely changed since their inception. Instead of the dirty words of ‘elitism’ and ‘exclusivity’, it’s just become another tool of socialism in ensuring a more ‘equal’ society. Mass education for everyone! Degrees for everyone! Everybody’s equal!

    Hmmm, is the idea of mass tertiary education even a good thing in the first place? What should we define tertiary education as?

    Oh, and David, your point about the Harvard MBA doesn’t exactly support the point that “government funding of tertiary education is bad”; it’s a tangential point that only supports the thesis that private concerns have an incentive to uphold standards, but says nothing of the government’s ability to do so. You should have given us an example where government funding led to a noted decrease in quality.

    And I don’t believe Shrub is an idiot either. A ‘C’ at that level is probably no laughing matter.

  • Wobbly Guy writes:
    because a lax system with low quality can and will lead to serious economic repercussions down the road.

    Governments which recognise this will have this massive incentive to maintain standards and tighten the screws on quality, because the success or failure of a government is measured by the standard of living of the people it governs.

    It seems to me that your argument falls down in three places: (1) “…down the road”, (2) “Governments which recognise this” and (3) “massive incentive”.

    (1) It’s a long time down the road. Probably after the next election. A decline in education is serious for the kids involved, but scarcely registers for the government that causes it.

    (2) Governments frequently don’t recognise this – as you point out yourself re our present government. Singapore is a rarity.

    (3) …So it’s not a massive incentive. Pretty damn titchy incentive, actually. The only measuring will be done by posterity.

    Good question about tertiary education, though.

  • Drat. The sentence beginning “Governments which recognise this…” in my last comment is part of the quote from Wobbly Guy and should also have been in italics.

  • I am irresistibly reminded of Harry East’s speech in Tom Brown’s Schooldays:

    Not use old vulgus-books! Why, you Goth, ain’t we to take the benefit of the wisdom and admire and use the work of past generations? Not use old copy-books! Why, you might as well say we ought to pull down Westminster Abbey, and put up a go-to-meeting shop with churchwarden windows; or never read Shakespeare, but only Sheridan Knowles. Think of all the work and labour that our predecessors have bestowed on these very books; and are we to make their work of no value?

    This is not to say that I approve of cheating – quite the contrary, though I too have been a lunchtime-cheater in the same mold as Nathalie Solent, and in fact East’s diatribe is more than a little tongue-in-cheek…

  • David Gillies

    “You should have given us an example where government funding led to a noted decrease in quality.” Umm. I did. The whole sorry tale of plagiarism being given the nod that kicked this thread off? That one? It was precisely the rent-seeking attitude of the powers that be that meant they were unable to uphold standards. The huge influx of marginally-capable students has led inexorably to a decline in quantity, and has engendered a whole raft of perverse incentives.

    If you really want a stand-out example of where government getting in the way has led to a precipitous declince in standards, I have two words for you: ‘A’ levels.

  • As I’ve said elsewhere, I think there has been a decline and it shows up in the way cheats aren’t punished. Obviously I am in no position to claim that cheating didn’t happen twenty years ago – but back then we were convinced, I think correctly, that the penalty for being caught at it would be expulsion. Once the prospect of that became real to me it was a major modifier of my behaviour.

    Of course there is a time lag as older mores linger on, but students will adapt to the new incentive structure eventually. Unfortunately.

  • The Wobbly Guy

    From what I’ve seen, aren’t the A levels pretty ok?

    Then again, there was that bumper crop of exemplary grades from the results released this year in Singapore for the Junior Colleges… me thinks you have a point.

    I just can’t get my head around the idea that increasing the number of graduates is a good thing. Even the Singapore government seems prone to this creeping socialism and says it wants more of the population to hold degrees, adding the caveat that quality would not be sacrificed. But I would ask, are there that many smart people in the land who deserve to hold degrees?

    Has our genetic stock actually improved? That average intelligence has increased and kept pace with the increase in graduates?

    The answer, I fear, is not palatable to the powers that be.