Who are the biggest cheaters in Irish universities?

Smartphones make cheating easy. We reveal the worst offenders at third level

There have been more than  2,300 cases of students cheating at  universities since 2010. Photograph: iStock

There have been more than 2,300 cases of students cheating at universities since 2010. Photograph: iStock

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There’s always been a temptation to cheat, and sneaking phones into exam halls or plagiarising from the internet has made it easier than ever before.

Technology has also made it much easier to be caught, however, with higher education institutions increasingly using sophisticated plagiarism-detection tools such as TurnItIn and SafeAssign.

Using Freedom of Information requests, we asked all the universities and several institutes of technology and colleges to provide data on cheats.

Between 2010 and 2018, there were at least 2,334 cases of students cheating at the universities alone, excluding University College Cork which says it does not collect data.

This figure also excludes information on plagiarism at NUI Galway and the University of Limerick, who say they do not centrally record this data.

Business students most likely to cheat

Business students at UCD – which provided the most detailed and transparent information on “academic misconduct” – are, by a significant margin, more likely than any other student to cheat. In the academic year 2016/17, 133 UCD students were investigated for academic misconduct and 126 students were found to have cheated. Business students, who made up 21.5 per cent of the student body in 2016/17, accounted for 52 (41 per cent) of these rule-breakers.

And this isn’t just a statistical blip. UCD records dating back to 2006/07 show that business students consistently make up the single largest percentage of students found in breach of academic rules.

But this trend is not limited to UCD. At DIT, which also keeps comprehensive records of academic misconduct, there were 731 cases of suspected plagiarism or exam breaches between 2010 and 2018, and 226 (30.9 per cent) of these students came from the college of business.

According to a report on registration at DIT in 2016/17, 27 per cent of the undergraduate student body came from social science, business or law.

At Dundalk IT, about 90 out of 177 students (50.8 per cent) who committed an exam infringement between 2010 and 2018 were studying business subjects. In 2016, social science, business and law students combined comprised 39 per cent of Dundalk’s student body.

Another reason, perhaps, not to fully trust our banks and financial institutions?

Plagiarism: arts students are worst offenders

Students can easily cheat in their assignments by buying a specially commissioned essay over the internet.

Ads for these “essay mills” have appeared around Irish campuses and are usually removed by college authorities. Students who buy their essays can easily avoid electronic plagiarism detection systems.

Legislation that would prosecute students for this academic misconduct is currently being considered by the Oireachtas.

Most incidents of plagiarism occur when students will use non-academic websites for their assignments and fail to properly cite.

Many tutors and lecturers are reluctant to report students to the college authorities for plagiarism, because it can go down on their permanent record. Instead, students are often either docked marks for minor plagiarism or required to resubmit their essay with a cap on the mark they receive. This isn’t recorded in official statistics.

In general, students are far more likely to cheat in an exam than during an assignment.

Trinity College only disciplined 40 students for plagiarism between 2010/11 and 2017/18. At Maynooth University, there were no cases in 2010/11, but 20 in 2014/15, 33 in 2015/16 and 49 in 2016/17.

Records from UCD show that there were 61 cases of plagiarism reported to the college authorities between 2006/07 and 2014/15, with 29 of these occurring between 2010/11 and 2012/13. Arts students were easily the worst offenders, accounting for 48 (78.7 per cent) of these cases. This may be because information on some arts subjects such as politics, history and English, is widely available online.

In all third levels, the real figure is likely to be far higher than official figures suggest.

Smartphones make cheating easier

Smartphones are a big headache for college authorities. Students can easily store notes on them or look up an answer online during an exam, often when taking a toilet break. Most third levels have moved to ban them entirely from exam halls in recent years.

The number of students suspected of cheating during an exam has risen substantially since the advent of smartphones. At NUI Galway, there were just 29 reports of exam breaches in 2010/11 and 28 and 29 in the following years. In 2013/14, when the university introduced a ban on possessing a phone in the exam hall, 145 students found themselves in trouble. By 2017/18, this had fallen to just 49 students, suggesting that the message is getting through to students.

UCD’s comprehensive records show that bringing notes or other unauthorised materials – including electronic devices – into the exam hall and copying or cheating at any exam or test are by far the most academic breaches. There were 43 allegations received in 2006/07, with 70, 135, 167, 148, 145, 154, 121, 205 and 189 in the following years.

The ingenious – and stupid – ways students cheat

Writing notes on parts of the body is a time-honoured way to cheat, although scribbling them on a visible part of the body might not be the wisest move. At IT Tallaght, one student “admitted to having writing on her hand so that she could use ‘fancy’ words in her answer”. She was given a F grade and made repeat the module. Generally, modern cheats prefer to use their phone instead of sneaking in notes or writing on themselves.

At IT Sligo in 2016/17, two students were caught sneaking notes into the hall inside their calculator cover. At the same institution, another student forged a medical cert and was given a fine.

Dundalk IT, which keeps extensive records of how students try to cheat, can provide us with an insight into some of the approaches students take. Two students were caught with notes up their sleeve. One student asked the invigilator if they could use a dictionary; when told he could, he took out his phone and tried to use it. It was confiscated. In 2013 at the same college, one student was found with 65 pages of notes. In 2015, a student on placement forged his supervisor’s signature rather than show up; he failed.

National College of Ireland students cheat at their peril

The incidence of students caught cheating may vary wildly from one college to another. UCD appears to have a higher incidence of cheating than elsewhere, but this is most likely because UCD keeps good records and because it is tough on cheats and has robust policies to prevent and catch them.

Students who cheat can face penalties including a mark of zero, a reduction in marks, letters of warning, fines, expulsion or suspension. In practice, expulsion is rare. UCC, Trinity, DCU and UL did not provide details of how it sanctioned cheats. But at UCD, over 250 students were excluded from their module for cheating between 2006/07 and 2016/17, with some allowed repeat and some not, while two students were suspended for more than a year. At IT Carlow, 68 students were suspected of cheating between 2011 and 2017 and 60 were given a penalty, with one excluded from college for 12 months and another forced to repeat the year at their own cost. At IADT Dún Laoghaire, one cheat had their entire degree capped at a pass.

But the harshest penalties appear to be doled out at the National College of Ireland, where 279 cases of academic misconduct between 2011 and 2018 led to 25 expulsions and 76 suspensions.

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