No surprises and no excuses: plagiarism at this university

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.

9 comments

  1. “YUSU must be careful not to overwhelm students with pessimistic propaganda” – isn’t Nouse already doing that for them by sticking a big ‘250%’ in front of the initial article?

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  2. The pessimistic propaganda refers to what the editorial on this story describes as “a barrage of lectures and forms”, frightening students into thinking that it is somehow ‘likely’ or probable’ that they will be accused of academic misconduct.

    The 250% refers to the proportion of foreign to home students, but the main article stresses that the numbers involved are nevertheless very small – less than 2% of internationals and less than 1% of home students

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  3. Is this the new Nouse policy of trying to win two Pulitzers by repeating the same story twice…

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  4. Neil Barnes, I think you’re spot on. Joe, I’m not sure the other story does ‘stress’ the low number of academic tribunals. It mentions it, but doesn’t stress it. The main tone is ‘DANGER! LOADS OF OVERSEAS STUDENTS ARE BEING GIVEN CRAP MARKS!!!’.

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  5. It seems to me that the important issue here is not specifically to do with students being ‘foreign’ – born in another country. Its to do with language.

    If *all* foreign students at this university were proficient with high level (academic standard) spoken and written english, then the high rate of academic misconduct by foreign students would be rather difficult to explain – since all students get the same warnings, information, etc. If, in fact, all foreign students at this university *do* have this high level of English then the “250%” headline is no story at all – it is each individual student’s own fault for not heeding the warnings/doing their work.

    However, this is not how the story has been presented by NOUSE. Implicit is the assumption that some foreign student’s command of the English language (the language of tuition at this institution) is NOT up to this required standard. The argument then goes that such students are disadvantaged when it comes to understanding plagiarism warnings, when it comes to writing and reading for essays (when everything is in english), etc etc.

    My point is that this is an English-language speaking institution, and foreign students know when they apply here that their command of english must be very good if they want to succeed. If their command of English isn’t good enough, then they shouldn’t be at university here. Therefore, lack of English language skills don’t form an ‘excuse’ for foreign students who commit academic misconduct, and the 250% figure only represents a failing of the university in respect of the university’s failure to identify the foreign students with language difficulties. But, once identified, the university itself has no obligation to help them learn English better. The University of York provides tuition IN ENGLISH. Each individual foreign student knows this in advance when they apply, and so should be prepared for it.

    It is true that foreign students are at a disadvantage if they do not speak good enough english for academic purposes. But they themselves are responsible for putting themselves at this disadvantage by choosing to study here in the first place. The disadvantage is therefore not unfair, and should not be given special considerations in academic tribunals.

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  6. I’d like to add that most foreign students that I meet *do* speak english very well, work very hard, and, just like their ‘home student’ peers, do very well here, and make very many positive contributions to the University as a whole.

    My point is against Nouse’s presentation of this story as ‘the university is failing foreign students and must do something about it’. I do not believe this to be the case. It seems more likely to me that the tiny percentage of foreign students who face academic tribunals do so because either (a) they cheated or plagiarised or (b) they misunderstood some instruction (given in English). In neither case is the university at fault.

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  7. cutting: If the case is (a) they cheated or plagiarised, then why is the case that it’s a higher proportion of international students that are doing that then home students? That’s the points Nouse is trying to make.

    I disagree with your assertion that it is only language differences that affect international students, I believe there are a great deal of cultural differences to be taken into consideration as well

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  8. Thanks for the comments

    In response to Matt, it’s basic newspaper practice to have articles ‘Comment’-ing on the main news stories of the issue. The purpose of Comment is to express a balanced opinion about a story, as opposed to News, whose purpose is simply to report the facts.

    And they are facts, by the way. The 250% statistic is correct, as this means 2.5 times ‘as many as’, not ‘more than’, which is a slip that our print edition made which has been corrected for the web version.

    Oscar, the news article states that there were 52 tribunals, of which 12 involved overseas students (the 2.5 times figure is proportional, taking into account the number of home and overseas students at the university). At a university of 11000 students, these are fairly small numbers. But the point is that an academic tribunal is in itself a serious matter, with serious consequences, and our coverage of the story aims to point out that there is a discrepancy in terms of the proportions of students involved, and that – although there are positive measures in place, more could perhaps be done.

    cutting – I’d like to make a similar response to your second comment. We do not believe either that the university is failing overseas students or that our coverage implies this idea.

    I agree with your main argument about the level of English-speaking ability that overseas students need in order to study here, but surely this only makes the relatively disproportionate number of overseas students involved in tribunals more mystifying?

    Clearly – in a relative handful of cases only, I emphasise – not enough is being done to break down the inevitable barriers. However, obviously, the answer is not to discourage foreign students, but to find an alternative, positive solution.

    Joe Chapman
    Nouse Comment

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  9. Hello, I graduated in ’92 (Law) from a different university. My opinion, for what it’s worth, based on my observations and experience, is that the problem is that many degrees in this country are essentially “for sale” to foreign students. This causes universities to accept those whose language skills are wholly inadequate and though many are very hardworking, excessive lenience tends to be shown. I have known foreign students who had extension after extension, for their whole course and who often showed fundamental and massive gaps in understanding, which were ignored. I am sure that if a home student had made these errors a reduction in grade would have resulted. Many will have left university with equivalent grades to home students, which, in reality, were not equivalent – or fair to home students. It seems inevitable, therefore that such students will be highly represented in tribunals etc – the pressure to succeed for many is very high and human nature is likely with some to take its course. The fundamental problem is not any sort of discrimination or misunderstanding of the rules, but an admissions policy based on income generation.

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