Universities have been reprimanded for unfair treatment of students accused of academic misconduct in a report by the Higher Education Ombudsman for England and Wales.
The Office of the Independent Adjudicator (OIA) said changes to assessments, accelerated by the Covid pandemic when university exams moved online, had led to uncertainty among students about what is and is not allowed.
In an anonymous case, a university was ordered to apologize and pay £6,000 damages to a student for “severe suffering” caused by the inappropriate handling of an allegation of academic misconduct in an online exam.
Suspicions arose after checks revealed the student had completed the assessment in less than four minutes. The student explained that he had prepared draft responses and was able to adapt them quickly during the assessment.
They were asked to do a mock test on the spot by the investigative inspectors, who decided that the student had seen the questions in advance and applied a penalty. The student, who denied the allegation, was so distressed that he sought emergency medical help for suicidal thoughts. They also accused investigators of racism after noting that other accused students, who were white, received lesser sentences.
There have been reports of an increase in the number of cases of plagiarism and academic misconduct at universities since the introduction of online exams. Figures obtained by the Times indicate that academic neglect at some Russell Group universities has more than doubled.
The OIA, which acts as the final arbiter for student complaints, said it had not seen a significant increase in complaints about instances of academic misconduct, but that the issues and challenges arising from cases of suspected misconduct had “evolved”.
There were many examples of good practice in how universities dealt with suspected academic misconduct, the OIA report said. “But we also saw examples of processes that didn’t result in a fair outcome.
“Changes in assessment practices that have been accelerated by the pandemic likely contributed to some students’ uncertainty about what is expected and what is allowed.”
The report also highlighted the variety of online tools and services available to students, free or paid, which can be confusing. “Students may see no difference between paying for access to a newspaper article through a paywall and paying for a sample of academic writing on the specific topic of a module assessment.
“Likewise, students don’t always know if they have permission to use any proofreading, paraphrasing or translation assistance, or understand if the service they used was inappropriate.”
Universities should help students by providing examples of legitimate research approaches or services that students should not use, the report said. The OIA also suggested that students keep drafts of early work as proof of their own work, in case questions arise later.
Independent adjudicator Felicity Mitchell said: “Providers of higher education need to have fair processes in place for identifying and dealing with academic misconduct to help protect the value of the education they provide.
“But it’s important to set clear expectations about what is – and what isn’t – allowed in assessments and remind students of those expectations throughout their studies. How providers address misconduct when suspected can affect both the fairness of the outcome and the well-being of the student involved.”