The status quo is unacceptable but by no means any kind of surprise.
The revelation that a disproportionate number of international students involved in academic tribunals should not come as any real surprise. The difficulties involved in studying for an academic degree in an unfamiliar country using a foreign language are such that it is perhaps inevitable that many overseas students will struggle to progress in the way in which they may be expected to.
But that is not an excuse for students to resort to illegitimate means, nor does it mean that the University can afford to be complacent about the issue, especially given the sheer scale of the disparity between home and international students going through what Anne-Marie Canning rightly describes as “a frightening experience”.
As a proportion of the size of each student group, 2.5 times as many overseas students as home students are referred to academic tribunals. At a university that is often criticised for its relative lack of ethnic and cultural diversity, the number of minority students facing expulsion is particularly striking – and worrying.
It is worrying not only because it reduces the size of the foreign student community, but also because it damages that community’s reputation within the University, and acts as a potential deterrent to future overseas students, who may feel intimidated by the high incidence of current foreign students who see their academic ambitions left in tatters.
This situation simply cannot be allowed to persist, but with increasing reliance of many students – and course lecturers – upon the internet and the wealth of material it provides, the danger is that the number of those caught neglecting proper procedures will continue to rise, and it is international students who are most at risk.
After all, although it is impossible and inappropriate to speculate about the nature of the cases referred to tribunal, Leeds University’s QAA report and the statement from the NUS both clearly identify plagiarism as the issue that is of most concern. At Leeds over the past two years, around 60% of plagiarism cases have involved students from overseas.
Indeed, it must be stressed that the issue is not specific to York, but appears to be a general trend across the country, in which the same obstacles of language and culture are confronting international students from the same diversity of backgrounds. Nor is there evidence that the problem is growing; the numbers of international students in tribunals is growing, but so is the overseas-student population in British universities.
In York’s case, the criticism of the University in the light of the exam fraud case last year was a little wide of the mark. Instead, the consensus is that provisions are in place to help both home and international students, but that not enough is done to make students aware of the help that is available to them.
The OSA is taking steps to advise its members about where they can seek assistance, but concedes that it is the responsibility of the students themselves to be sufficiently active in responding to accusations of misconduct, before it is too late. YUSU is also getting involved, with a plagiarism campaign scheduled for later this term that will aim to raise widespread awareness about the issue.
However, YUSU must be careful not to overwhelm students with pessimistic propaganda at what is an already daunting time for many new students, particularly given that school leavers should already be well aware of the penalties that academic misconduct carries. Already, some home students that I know are actually fed up with what they perceive to be a bombardment of warnings about the p-word.
Nevertheless, the OSA, YUSU and the NUS have all made the point that it is preventative action that is needed, because punitive measures are not a satisfactory way of addressing the problem. Therefore, it is at least promising that the University is aware of the problem, and is attempting to tackle it in a direct and meaningful way.