“Lengthy, stressful and confusing”: students speak out over misconduct procedure
With exclusive data on an increase in academic misconduct cases, Print Editor Bryony Gooch reports on how the current misconduct procedure has impacted students.
OVER the past five years, the number of academic misconduct cases has more than doubled in occurrence, Exeposé can reveal.
A Freedom of Information Request to the University found that between 2017/18 and 2018/19 alone there was a 120 percent increase in the number of academic misconduct cases, from 330 to 728.
The Information Governance office judged this as being due to “broader use across the institution of anti-plagiarism software”, with Turnitin being incorporated into academic practice in 2018.
Considering this large increase in the number of misconduct investigations taking place, Exeposé spoke to students who have been through the academic misconduct procedure to understand their experiences.
All students told of receiving an email informing them that they were under investigation for “suspected academic misconduct or poor academic practice”. They would be informed of what they were being investigated for in 15 working days.
Jess, a third year Medical Sciences student stated that “three weeks came around and they still did not contact me so I sent an email. That day I received the result where they said I had plagiarised with not a lot of context.
“But I could see from the docudone wrong. I contacted my personal tutor but she told me that she was unable to comment on individual cases.”
Exeposé heard from the students that they were subsequently invited to hearings to discuss the misconduct investigation. In advance of the meeting, they were allowed to write a 2,000 word statement defending themselves. They would also be allowed a “McKenzie friend” – someone to sit in the meeting for support, but unable to contribute to the meeting itself.
Simon* reported that, by the time they got to the hearing, “I still wasn’t sure as to what I had done wrong – they said I could submit a written defense, but how when I’m not sure what I’m defending?” The hearing resulted in the student being asked to rework three pieces of work without the alleged plagiarism.
They explained: “During these three weeks I had three other big assignments to complete. As a third year to suddenly have six assignments to complete in three weeks is impossible. I tried to contact them numerous times to explain this and only after having to get my personal tutor involved did they give me two extra weeks.”
Ella*, a first year English student, told us how they had been unable to attend the meeting and no one else was allowed to attend in their place. While they had handed in their 2,000 word statement, there was no one in the hearing in the end to defend the student. There were only two people in the misconduct hearing: the “panel” involved the single misconduct officer while someone else took minutes. With only two people in the meeting to make the decision, and no one there on the student’s behalf, the first year student was found guilty of plagiarism and asked to resubmit the piece of work with the poor academic practice removed.
Students criticised the manner of communication surrounding the procedure, as the third year History student described that: “The process is very complicated with a lack of clarity, and the idea that they give you such a little time frame to fix the issue is ridiculous – especially since they conceded that my offence is very common and unintentional.”
Additionally, Jess noted: “I think the main problem with the process is how unprofessional the timing is and also how they add the wellbeing links to the bottom of the emails but never check on you even if you haven’t contacted wellbeing, which I think should be done.”
The prospect of sitting in the meeting made me so nervous and I couldn’t stop crying literally every night because you question all your other work.Jess*
Students also criticised the toll the procedure had taken on their mental health.
Simon* described the experience as “very lengthy, stressful and confusing. It’s very bureaucratic and doesn’t take into account individual situations.”
Jess* confided that “the process has been going on for over two months now and to say I have been stressed is an understatement and I wouldn’t wish for anyone to go through it.
“Initially the prospect of sitting in the meeting made me so nervous and I couldn’t stop crying literally every night because you question all your other work.
“I take my academic conduct very seriously and it is just embarrassing to talk to your peers about as well because you think it will change their perception of you. I don’t think I would have felt so confident going into the meeting if my tutor hadn’t given me tips on what to do beforehand.”
Meanwhile Ella* recalled that “the email made me incredibly stressed and I was unable to focus on anything else which made me fall behind on work.
“I couldn’t face attending seminars and I felt completely disillusioned with my degree and almost considered dropping out.
“Also because I didn’t know what I had done wrong, I was worried this would happen again.
“I felt very low during this time and just needed someone to explain the situation to me, not automated, impersonal emails which often were very wordy and difficult to read.”
I felt completely disillusioned with my degree and almost considered dropping out.Ella*
Two of these students have filed official complaints against the cases team for their handling of the investigations.
Exeposé reached out to Exeter Student’s Guild, who stated: “The Advice service is here to support students when they’re accused of academic misconduct. Students are encouraged to speak to their Reps, College Officers and Penny as VP Education if they have feedback about the academic misconduct procedure.”
A University of Exeter spokesperson said: “Our overall approach to academic misconduct hasn’t altered, but we have made some structural changes to ensure consistency. This includes the central management of all College-based casework, including academic misconduct cases, which took place in April 2018; an increased use of the Turnitin software and its mandatory introduction across all Colleges in October 2018; and a consolidated training programme for all Academic Misconduct Officers.
“The majority of cases continue to be at the lower level of severity, such as poor academic practice, where issues may arise from a lack of understanding of academic protocols or a misunderstanding of expected academic conventions of the discipline. We have been running academic honesty workshops across Colleges and this early intervention helps to reduce more serious cases which often happen later on in undergraduate and postgraduate courses.
“We know how challenging it is for a student to have their work investigated, and we constantly review our processes to ensure they are clear, informative and provide reassurance, along with signposting to the various support that is available. When students are notified their work is being investigated we send them comprehensive information which explains the process, what they can expect to happen and the reasons for our specific procedures.”
*All names have been changed for anonymity