This blog has been contributed by Darren de Souza, Policy & Projects Officer of London Higher – the representative body for the UK’s largest regional higher education powerhouse in London. Darren is on Twitter @darren_desouza.
UK higher education has a world-renowned reputation for academic excellence and student experience. As the UK’s capital, London’s institutions represent around 20 per cent of England’s students, nearly 30 percent of the UK’s international student intake and a hugely diverse student population, where more than 40 per cent of home students are from Global Majority backgrounds. Therefore, London’s higher education institutions are committed to ensuring that higher education in the capital remains an attractive, prestigious and academically rigorous option for students across the UK and around the globe.
Academic integrity, and particularly the growing role of technology in this space, has prompted significant discussion in recent years, most notably with the inclusion of legislation to criminalise ‘essay mills’ and address wider contract cheating in the Skills and Post-16 Education Act. In Spring 2022, London Higher convened a series of events on a variety of issues pertaining to academic integrity, including misconduct, contract cheating, and challenged with the verification of English language qualifications.
These issues are in no way exclusive to the capital but, as a group representing the largest regional sub-section of the UK higher education sector – with a high proportion of students from overseas and from under-represented backgrounds who may be more vulnerable – it is important that London higher education is upfront in tackling these challenges and taking the measures necessary to uphold the world-renowned quality in our sector. The recent event series showcased the work that London Higher members are doing in this space and provides a useful springboard for discussion and development of sector-level strategies to combat several aspects of academic misconduct, in conjunction with relevant legislation.
A baseline for this is the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) Charter, developed in collaboration with the UK Academic Integrity Advisory Group. It comprises guiding principles that seek to inform the development of institutional policies and practices related to academic misconduct. More than 200 institutions from all four nations of the UK – 28 of whom are London Higher members – have signed up to the Charter. This represents a clear commitment to preserving academic integrity through dialogue and a collaborative approach, whilst maintaining institutions’ rights to use shared best practice as best fits their organisation. At a sector level, standardised language facilitates cooperation between institutions in recognising and combatting misconduct, allowing for a more unified sector-level response that can complement legislation. With more than 1,000 essay mills in operation – and new legislation only applying to England – signup to the QAA Charter is a positive step towards a joined-up UK-wide effort to take action against misconduct.
The QAA Charter is also a useful example of how discourse surrounding academic misconduct can be reframed. By acknowledging the centrality of higher education institutions to the process of promoting integrity, through ‘consistent and effective institutional policies and practices’ and the ability to empower staff and students, we can move away from a narrative of misconduct as an issue solely of student deficit. Viewing misconduct through a pedagogical lens will help develop solutions that meaningfully improve learning outcomes, build trust and strengthen relationships between students and staff. Academic misconduct cannot simply be punished or legislated out; transparency, authentic assessment and visible support structures must be designed in.
Whilst the QAA Charter signifies progress towards common language on a sector level, it is also crucial that institutional regulations are written in accessible language that can convey best practice, policies and potential penalties clearly to learners. This is particularly important given that students from particular backgrounds and entry pathways, which may make them more vulnerable, have received targeted messaging from essay mills and other services. Appropriate messaging is required so that the risks of using contract cheating services and the dangers of wider academic misconduct are clearly communicated.
Student vulnerabilities have also been laid bare during the pandemic: feelings of isolation, a lack of community and disengagement with peers and their institutions have been exacerbated. The shift to online learning has meant that the role of technology in academic integrity has been even more pronounced. Technology in the internet age allows for the existence of more sophisticated contracting cheating services that offer bespoke, ‘plagiarism-free’ services. Academic integrity expert, Dr Thomas Lancaster of Imperial College London, has recently asked ‘how do we work with emerging technology in education, instead of against it’? Tools such as Turnitin and Authorship for Investigators are well established and provide institutions with the means to easily and quickly identify plagiarism. However, it has been suggested that engaging students in assessments that that are more representative of real-world/professional environments rather than focusing on memorisation and recall, makes cheating more difficult, as these assessments are harder to outsource.
Recognising skills gaps and contextual differences between disciplines can further inform academic delivery and may help reduce misconduct. It is critical that staff are given sufficient time to update and refresh assessments at subject level in order to hinder contract cheating services. Authentic assessment can also increase student engagement and help build trust and confidence between students and staff, decreasing the necessity for learners to turn to contract cheating services.
There is no silver bullet that will eliminate academic misconduct in higher education. However, if a golden thread weaving together the following ideals would mean the the sector would be better placed to uphold quality and uplift students: transparency; dialogue within and between institutions; stronger relationships; standardised processes that respect institutional contexts; assessments that reward the creation of refined work and account for disciplinary differences; and appropriate use of technology. Providers that have identified higher levels of cheating must be supported by the regulator; breaches of essay mills legislation must be dealt with in a timely manner; and continuous review of institutional policies, procedures, penalties and support structures is necessary in order to identify and eradicate factors that foster a culture in which misconduct is viewed as a viable option.
This blog draws from presentations and material covered during the London Higher Academic Integrity events series.
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