A cheating epidemic is sweeping universities with thousands of students caught plagiarising, trying to bribe lecturers and buying essays from the internet.
A survey of more than 80 universities has revealed that academic misconduct is soaring at institutions across the country.
More than 17,000 incidents of cheating were recorded by universities in the 2009-10 academic year – up at least 50 per cent in four years.
But the true figure will be far higher because many were only able to provide details of the most serious cases and let lecturers deal with less serious offences.
Only a handful of students were expelled for their misdemeanours among those universities which disclosed how cheats were punished.
Most of the incidents were plagiarism in essays and other coursework, but others examples include:
* Three cases categorised as “impersonation” by Derby University and three at Coventry, along with 10 “uses of unauthorised technology”
* Kent University reported at least one case where a student attempted to “influence a teacher or examiner improperly”.
* At the University of East Anglia students submitted pieces of work which contained identical errors, while others completed reports which were “almost identical to that of another student”, a spokesman said, while one was caught copying sections from the Wikipedia website.
* A student sitting an exam at the University of the West of Scotland was caught with notes stored in an MP3 player.
* A Bradford University undergraduate completed work at home, smuggled it into an examination then claimed it had been written during the test.
* The University of Central Lancashire, at Preston, reported students had been caught using a “listening and/or communications device” during examinations.
* Keele undergraduates sitting exams were found to have concealed notes in the lavatory, stored on a mobile telephone and written on tissues while two students were found guilty of “falsifying a mentor’s signature on practice assessment documents to gain academic benefit”.
Many institutions reported students buying coursework from internet-based essay-writing companies.
Dozens of websites offering the services are available on the web, providing bespoke essays for fees of £150 and upwards. Some offer “guaranteed first class honours” essays at extra cost and many “guarantee confidentiality and privacy” – hinting that the essays can be used to cheat.
In one website offering “creative, unique, original, credible” essays, a testimonial from a previous customer says: “I am very satisfied with my order because I got the expected result.”
There are even sites which offer express services, while many claim the work is written by people with postgraduate qualifications.
Nottingham Trent discovered examples of bespoke essays, and Newcastle reported three cases of essays being purchased from a third party.
Two students bought work at Salford and cases were also reported at East London University, Greenwich and London South Bank, which uncovered three incidents.
Professor Geoffrey Alderman, from the University of Buckingham, who is a long-standing critic of falling standards in higher education, said: “I think it is a pretty depressing picture.
“It is worrying that students now resort to cheating on such a widespread scale and that the punishments on the whole are not robust enough.
“In my book it should be ‘two strikes and you’re out’.
“Although universities are perhaps better than they were at detecting certain types of cheating, such as plagiarism, when I talk to colleagues across the sector there is a view that cheating has increased.”
Professor Alderman said the style of teaching and assessment now used at some institutions was partly to blame for the rise in academic dishonesty.
“There has been a move away from unseen written examinations and most university degree courses are now assessed through term papers, which makes it more tempting to commit plagiarism,” he said.
“I advocate a return to the situation where it is impossible to pass a degree unit without achieving a minimum score in an unseen written test.”
The survey exposed for the first time a huge leap in the number of incidents compared with just four years earlier, with a 53 per cent jump from 9,100 to 14,200 among the 70 institutions able to provide comparable data.
Cheating was reported widely among undergraduates but there were also significant numbers reported among postgraduates. For example, Loughborough reported 151 incidents last year of which 43 were committed by postgraduates.
Greenwich University had the largest number of incidents overall, with 916, compared with 540 in 2005-06, but this may indicate the south-east London institution is more successful at detecting cheating than other universities.
Sheffield Hallam had the second largest number with 801 last year, more than 500 of which were for plagiarism.
The institution had 35,400 students which means 2.3 per cent were caught cheating.
East London University said that among its 733 cases of cheating last year there were 612 of plagiarism, 50 of collusion, 49 of “importation” and three where students had bought work.
One student at Kingston falsified paperwork supporting their application for “mitigating circumstances”, in a bid to win higher marks, and at the same institution 14 students were caught out when their mobile rang in the examination hall.
At Leicester, an undergraduate forged a medical certificate before taking an exam.
In 2005-06, Liverpool recorded two cases where a student was impersonating another examination candidate, and one candidate at London South Bank took an “annotated calculator” into the examination hall.
Few cheating students saw their academic careers brought to an end. Durham expelled four students last year for smuggling unauthorised material into exams or plagiarism, and one was expelled in 2005-06.
Goldsmith’s dismissed four students last year – undergraduates in history, politics, psychology and sociology.
Oxford reported 12 cases of academic misconduct, including plagiarism, last year and in two cases students were expelled, while others were marked down.
The university fined one student £100 for taking revision notes into an examination and imposed other fines for talking in an exam and taking mobile telephones into the examination hall.
Bournemouth University proved 53 cases of cheating last year but none of the students was expelled. Instead, most were marked down to nil marks for that piece of coursework or exam.
From Cardiff’s 301 cases of cheating last year, none was expelled but in one case a recommendation was made that the vice-chancellor should disqualify the student from further exams. The remainder of the offenders were reprimanded, marked down or sent on a “study skills” course.
Queen Mary reported one expulsion – for an exam offence and ghostwriting – last year out of 74 cases of cheating.
By David Barrett