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The handling of cheating cases is in urgent need of reform

  • 3 June 2022
  • By Daniel Sokol

On Thursday, 9 June 2022, HEPI will host its Annual Conference in central London. Titled ‘Challenges for the future?’, the day will include the launch of the Advance HE / HEPI 2022 Student Academic Experience SurveyRegister here.

This blog was written by Dr Daniel Sokol, a barrister and founder of Alpha Academic Appeals, where he leads a team of 15 barristers who act for students accused of misconduct. The blog is based on a speech delivered at the Westminster Higher Education Forum, ‘Next steps for tackling cheating in Higher Education’ on 26 April 2022. Daniel is on Twitter @DanielSokol9.

I’m a former university lecturer and a barrister. For the last 10 years, I’ve been helping students accused of academic misconduct, more commonly known as ‘cheating’.

Some of my clients have cheated deliberately, some have engaged in academic misconduct due to ignorance of academic conventions or a genuine mistake, and others are innocent and have been wrongly accused.

All these groups tell me the same thing about their experience of going through the process: that it is incredibly stressful and that they feel like criminals. The presumption of innocence is not alive and well in UK universities; in many places, it’s been replaced by the presumption of guilt. In practice, this means two things: firstly, that the experience is more traumatic for students than it needs to be; and secondly, that innocent students are found guilty, with potentially serious consequences to their degree and their future.

One thing I would like to see is a kinder, more humane approach to investigations and hearings, especially as some of the accused students suffer from mental health problems. In some cases, these psychiatric problems may have contributed to their poor decision to cheat in the first place. Cheating is a serious matter, but these students are not murderers or violent offenders. It is important, I feel, for universities to keep some degree of perspective.

That doesn’t mean that investigators and decision-makers shouldn’t ask accused students difficult questions – they should – but they should do so politely, without ambushing the students at hearings by withholding details of the allegation or other crucial evidence until the last minute and allowing the students to be properly supported and represented from the outset of the investigation, whether by someone who is well trained from the student union or a lawyer. 

Too many students are going through this unfamiliar and stressful process on their own. They are worried – quite rightly – about the impact of the allegation on their degree, their continuation on the course and their ability to find a good job. They worry about what to tell their parents. For international students, there is the additional worry of their immigration status. Some of you may remember the student from the University of Portsmouth who, two years ago, was accused of plagiarism and tragically killed himself. At the inquest, the coroner found that the plagiarism accusation played a part in his suicide. 

Universities must reflect on the impact on accused students of everything they do – including their actions, their delays (which are very common and add to students’ stress), their letters and e-mails, their wording and tone in writing and speech, and their conduct in hearings. It is distressing for students to receive a letter from their university saying they’ve been accused of – I quote from an actual letter – ‘exceptionally serious academic misconduct’. The recipient of this letter was an undergraduate student who was alleged to have accessed an unauthorised website during an online exam. Why not just say ‘serious’ rather ‘exceptionally serious’?

I’ve also seen panel members laugh mockingly at the answers given by students in hearings. Once, when I intervened, I was told by the Chair of the panel to be quiet as the student could only be accompanied at the hearing, not represented.

Better training, preferably conducted by practising lawyers or judges, would go a long way in reducing some of these problems, including the injustice of finding innocent students guilty of cheating.

You may find it odd that, if a student appeals a £60 parking fine, the adjudicator at the Traffic Penalty Tribunal will be an independent qualified solicitor or barrister with at least five years of legal experience but if that same student faces permanent exclusion from university for cheating – with potentially life-changing consequences – the adjudicator is unlikely to have any legal experience and may have no formal training at all. 

The compulsory training should include training in the principles of natural justice and, crucially, the assessment and weighing of different forms of evidence, including expert evidence, something that lawyers and judges are accustomed to but not necessarily academics.

For example, we’ve had several cases where a student was accused of buying an essay from someone else and faced exclusion. The evidence: the marker felt the essay was too good, too sophisticated to be written by a student. When the student explained that they had really written it, the panel simply disbelieved the student’s account, preferring the evidence of the marker. Remember that the standard of proof, in most institutions, is the balance of probabilities, or what is more likely than not.

Some of these students had to instruct lawyers and forensic linguistics experts, costing several thousand pounds, to prove their innocence. When they eventually did, they received no apology and no refund from the university. 

The system is in urgent need of improvement.

Register here for HEPI’s annual conference on Thursday 9 June 2022.

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1 comment

  1. Albert Wright says:

    Until I read this article, I knew nothing about the process involved for dealing with a student accused of cheating but felt strongly that cheating should be prevented and where this was not possible, punished when found to have happened.

    I will now seek to learn more. Has there been any research published on this subject? Are there any statistics about the number of students affected, the Universities they attended, the “penalties” imposed for those who are found “guilty”, any appeals procedures etc.

    As an ex Magistrate / JP (Justice of the Peace), I am surprised that the University tribunals involved in investigations of academic cheating may not include trained members and that some of those being accused find it necessary to get professional legal representation.

    Cheating is not only wrong but potentionally dangerous if it involves subjects like medicine and engineering.

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