How to deal with the student who broke exam rules. You be the judge.

This article sheds light on the potentially life-changing decisions that universities make when dealing with cases of student misconduct. As such cases have risen sharply during the covid pandemic, it is vital for universities to be knowledgeable and skilled in their handling of misconduct allegations.

Photo by MChe Lee on Unsplash

The Offence

In 1990, Instant Kiwi, a scratchcard game in New Zealand, produced a 1-minute commercial showing a student engaging in academic misconduct. One of the barristers at Alpha Academic Appeals showed it to the group and it triggered a light-hearted discussion about what would happen to such a student in 2021. Watch the video below and reflect on what you think should happen to the student. We are grateful to the director of the video, Tony Williams, for permission to use it.

The Outcome

Our barristers have produced two hypothetical Outcome Letters from the Student Misconduct Panel of the fictional University of Central Hammersmith. The first letter issues the student (Mr Smith) with a warning, usually the most lenient sanction. The second expels him.

Scenario 1: warning

Dear Mr Smith,

Following a thorough investigation into the matter, the Student Misconduct Panel has determined that you should be issued with a warning. The reasoning for this finding is set out in detail below.

The Facts

You are a final year student at the university who sat the examination on 5th February 2021 from 12am to 3pm.

At the end of the examination, at 3pm, the invigilator Professor Jones announced to the candidates that they should put down their pens and bring their papers to the front of the room.

Instead of doing so, you engaged in an act of gambling involving a scratchcard.

Several minutes after 3pm, once all the other candidates had left the hall, you attempted to submit your paper to Professor Jones. In accordance with protocol, Professor Jones informed you that it was now too late to submit the paper. You did no dispute this but asked him if he knew who you were. When Professor Jones answered no, you placed your examination script in the centre of the pile of other scripts in an attempt to escape detection.

Finally, you proceeded to take Professor Jones’ apple from the table and walked out of the examination hall.

Decision

The Panel found that:

i) you took unauthorised material into the examination hall;

ii) you failed to put down your pen when instructed to do so by the invigilator; and

iii) you submitted the examination script a few minutes late.

The Panel therefore has no hesitation in finding that you engaged in academic misconduct and breached examination rules.

However, the Panel accepts that:

i) the examination script was not altered after the instruction to stop writing;

ii) after the end of the examination, the pen was used only for scratching the scratchcard;

iii) the scratchcard contained no materials that could have assisted you in the examination;

iv) your conduct did not materially disadvantage other students;

v) you did not intend to cheat during the examination;

vi) the submission was only marginally late.

The Panel has viewed the video footage of your interaction with the invigilator after the examination, including the insertion of your exam paper into the centre of the pile of scripts and the snatching of Professor Jones’ apple. The Panel did not condone your behaviour but, after careful reflection, it concluded that your behaviour was motivated by playful mischievousness rather than malice.

The Panel has noted that this was a first offence and that you have apologised for your actions.

Although in breach of university rules, the Panel considered that your conduct fell on the milder end of the spectrum of severity and that a proportionate sanction would be a warning. Your examination script will be marked in the usual way, with no penalties.

If you wish to appeal this decision, you have 7 working days to lodge an appeal to the Appeals Committee.

Is that a fair outcome? Now consider the second scenario: immediate expulsion.

Scenario 2: expulsion

Dear Mr Smith,

Following a thorough investigation into the matter, the Student Misconduct Panel has concluded that you should be withdrawn from the university with immediate effect and with no credits. The reasoning for this finding is set out in detail below.

The Facts

[As above.]

Decision

The Panel has found that you took into the examination unauthorised material, namely the scratchcard, in contravention of paragraph 36 of the university’s regulations on examinations. This rule is contained on the institution’s website, the course handbook, and announced at the start of the examination. Under the regulations, this is a ‘strict liability’ offence and so the presence or absence of any intention to cheat is irrelevant to determining whether an offence was committed.

The Panel found that you failed to put your pen down when instructed to do so by the invigilator. This constitutes another offence of academic misconduct.

The Panel also found that you submitted the exam script after the permitted deadline, despite express warnings about the importance of timely submission. The university expects students to adhere to the submission deadlines, unless there are good reasons which render this impossible. In this case, the Panel had identified no good reason for the late submission.

Professor Jones, who gave evidence to the investigator, described your behaviour after the examination as impertinent and not becoming of a student at the University of Central Hammersmith. The Student Charter states that students will ‘uphold the values of the university by treating university staff with dignity and respect.’ Having seen the video footage, the Panel finds that your conduct was impolite, undignified, and disrespectful.

Finally, although the Panel has decided not to inform the police, the Panel finds that you stole Professor Jones’ apple as you left the examination hall. This is a criminal act of theft which has caused upset to Professor Jones. The CCTV shows you biting the apple ostentatiously as you turn back and smile at Professor Jones, who appears shaken. The Panel viewed your behaviour as ill-mannered and looked unfavourably upon it.

In terms of mitigation, the Panel noted that this was a first offence and that you apologised for your actions.

The Panel reflected on the appropriate sanction and concluded that, in light of the multiple instances of both academic and non-academic misconduct and their collective seriousness, your actions on 5th February 2021 justified immediate withdrawal from the course with no credits.

We understand that this will be disappointing and you are encouraged to seek support from the Student Union. If you wish to appeal this decision, you have 7 working days to lodge an appeal to the Appeals Committee.

Which approach is the fairest and why?

In our view, expulsion or another severe sanction (e.g., leading to a lower degree classification) would be disproportionately harsh in Mr Smith’s case. The bottom line is that he obtained no unfair advantage in the examination itself (i.e., between the hours of 12pm and 3pm) and no other student appears to have been disadvantaged as a result of his actions. Although some sanction should be imposed for his conduct, it should not be so serious as to affect his degree. Yet, based on our extensive experience, many if not most universities in the UK would favour a severe sanction.

One way to reduce unfair decisions is to select decision-makers carefully and provide adequate training. Being a judge in student misconduct cases is challenging. It requires knowledge of the rules of natural justice, attention to detail, an analytical mind and, most important of all, sound judgement. Perhaps prospective decision-makers should be shown the case of Mr Smith during the selection process and invited to write their own outcome letter. This would reveal much about their powers of reasoning and their good sense.

Finally, as most students will be unable to afford the services of specialist lawyers, Student Unions should have well trained individuals who can help students present their case in a persuasive manner and, in the event of an unfair decision, identify the flaws in the decision and assist with the appeal. The case of Mr Smith could also be used in the training of Student Union officers.

Daniel Sokol, PhD, is the founder of Alpha Academic Appeals, an organisation of 12 specialist barristers who help students overturn unjust results of schools and universities. He is also the founder of Alpha Academic Consulting which provides training to student unions and university staff.