The pandemic has led to a rise in cases of cheating by university students as assessments have moved online and at home.
Yet little thought is given to students falsely accused of cheating – and the disastrous consequences that follow.
Simon (not his real name) was studying for a degree in management. He suffered from a panic disorder that affected his ability to write essays and meet deadlines. Undeterred, he worked hard and achieved decent grades.
In his final year, with an impending deadline looming, Simon sat down to complete an assignment, desperately trying to focus on his work. Despite panic attacks, Simon completed the essay and submitted it on time. He could now relax.
Simon expected to graduate in the summer of this year. University had been arduous, even without the added stress of Covid, but he had found a way to get through it. He was pleased with his performance in the final year assignments and was looking forward to receiving his degree and entering the job market.
On results day, Simon did not receive his degree. Instead, he received a letter accusing him of cheating. The university alleged that Simon had received third-party assistance for his final assignment. Their evidence? That the language used in the essay was too sophisticated to have been written by him. He was told that, if found guilty, he could be expelled with no degree.
Some weeks after receiving the letter, a formal hearing took place. Simon had no lawyer to advise or represent him but he believed that a careful explanation of how he wrote the essay would alert the disciplinary panel to the terrible error that had occurred.
Right from the outset, Simon was made to feel like a criminal. The faculty representative explained how the essay was so good that it could hardly have been written by him. Simon protested his innocence and described how he had written the assignment. It was Simon’s word against the faculty. The panel sided with the faculty and found Simon guilty. He was expelled.
Simon was devastated. A few weeks prior, he had been within touching distance of graduation. Now, he had no degree, a large student debt, and poor job prospects. To his embarrassment, he would probably need to explain to prospective employers why he had been expelled. Psychologically and emotionally, he was distraught. He became more withdrawn and his panic attacks flared up.
Sometimes the sector gets it wrong
Universities are rightly concerned about catching the thousands of students who cheat in exams but little thought is given to students wrongly accused of academic misconduct. The consequences of a wrongful conviction can be life changing for students and their mental health severely affected, especially if like Simon they already suffer from an underlying psychological condition.
In our experience as lawyers representing students, miscarriages of justice are all too common in university disciplinary hearings. Panel members are usually academic staff with little training in adjudication, the weighing up of evidence and the questioning of witnesses.
Further, students often lack effective representation. Most universities do not allow students to have lawyers at hearings so some attend alone. Some attend with a students’ union adviser, but some of them have scant knowledge of oral advocacy and how to challenge the flawed evidence of a confident professor.
Simon appealed the decision. This time he left nothing to chance and instructed a barrister to represent him along with an expert in forensic linguistics to refute the university’s allegation of third-party involvement.
The expert produced a 17-page report which included detailed analysis of average word length, sentence structure, and use of punctuation. The expert concluded that the assignment in question was Simon’s own work. The report’s scientific rigour was in sharp contrast to the amateurish theories of the academic who had accused Simon.
Armed with a written appeal drafted by a barrister and supporting expert evidence, Simon persuaded the university’s Appeal Committee that there was no longer sufficient evidence to uphold the charge of academic misconduct. Simon was reinstated.
Time for change
We do not know how many students have been expelled or punished for offences they have not committed but we see dozens of students like Simon every year. There will be many more who cannot afford to instruct a lawyer or an expert, who are unaware of how to fight back against the University, or who are too upset to put up a fight. These forgotten students are the victims of a university justice system in need of an overhaul.
In their zeal to catch those who cheat, universities find guilty those who are innocent. This is perhaps unavoidable but the crude way in which investigations and hearings are often conducted means that too many blameless students are caught in the net.
Universities must recognise the far-reaching nature of their allegations. They must remember the presumption of innocence and ensure that decision-making staff are properly trained. The training should be rigorous since the consequences of getting it wrong can be serious. Universities should allow students to be legally represented, and should ensure that students’ unions are sufficiently resourced to train their advisers to a high standard and respond quickly to requests for assistance.
Although Simon was reinstated, he received no apology from the university. He was left to pay the bill for his barrister and the expert.