The Imperfect University: 2013 collection

Because universities are still difficult, but still worth it

With the latest post, on Robbins, we are now up to a total of 18 pieces to date in the Imperfect University series. Covering a wide range of occasionally relevant issues I do hope there is something for everyone in here. And there is a question at the end.  Anyway, do let me know what you think – here are the posts from 2013:

The first chapter

A collection of the first series of Imperfect University posts from 2012

Sectoral change since Robbins and into the future

A piece based on a conference presentation looking at changes in higher education in the past 50 years and what the future might hold.

Rational admissions

On why it is time to look again at a move to post-qualification admissions or PQA.

Know your history

A piece about the value of a well-developed sense of institutional history.

The end of internationalisation?

Why MOOCs really aren’t going to end universities’ international activities.

Free information?

On the problems with and impact of freedom of information requests.

What do we know about leadership in higher education?

Not a great deal seems to be the answer.

Truly transnational

A look at the dimensions of a genuinely global higher education operation.

Finally, from the top – The Imperfect University provides the original introduction to the series

More to follow in the year ahead. In the meantime, here’s a question. Is it time for an Imperfect University book?

Whatever the answer, will keep the series going.

The Imperfect University: Free Information?

Freedom of Information costs. But does anyone really benefit?


“You idiot. You naive, foolish, irresponsible nincompoop. There is really no description of stupidity, no matter how vivid, that is adequate. I quake at the imbecility of it.”

These are the words Tony Blair addresses to himself in his memoirs while reflecting on his government’s introduction of the Freedom of Information Act as noted in this BBC report.

Last year Times Higher Education ran a story suggesting that the average cost of FoI compliance equals £121 per request:

A study into the costs of answering Freedom of Information enquiries suggests that less than £10 million was spent across the sector last year.

When the House of Commons Justice Committee called for evidence on the effectiveness of the FoI Act, 23 universities submitted evidence, of which 18 complained about the cost burden, among other concerns.

But Jisc, the UK’s expert body on information and digital technology in higher education, tracked 36 requests in seven institutions and found that the average cost, including staff time, of answering an FoI request was £121.

According to Universities UK, higher education institutions received on average 10.1 requests a month in 2011. This equates to an average annual cost of £14,665, which across the sector’s 155 institutions adds up to £2.3 million a year.

I have to say this looks to be something of an underestimate. I asked my colleague in the University’s Governance team which deals with FoI for data for the past couple of years. The data and some examples of requests is set out below. Before we get there though you might wish to refresh your memory with a glance at the ICO guidance – it is 10 page (yes, 10 pages) definition document of what is expected to be published by universities and colleges and covers everything from staff expenses to tender procedures to CCTV locations.

logoDuring the period from 1st January 2011 to December 2012, the University of Nottingham responded to 370 Freedom of Information requests. In 24% of cases, requests resulted in non-disclosure either because the University applied an exemption successfully, defended a position of ‘over the appropriate time limit’ or the information was not held. 27% of requests received a partial disclosure of information. 49% of requests resulted in the requester being entitled to all of the information requested. Whilst we remain ‘purpose blind’ it is self-evident that the majority of requesters continue to be looking for material for journalistic purposes.

Of the 182 (49%) of requests with full responses requests were themed as follows:

Statistics  88
Supplier and contract details  35
Financial figures  25
Policies 21
Communication 2; a total of 7 emails and 1
letter were disclosed
University structure 6
Role profiles 2
Recruitment timeline 1
Research grants 1
Vice-Chancellor’s external roles 1

Supplier and contract details
We receive a large number of requests asking for details of contract agreements in place. In the main these are from competitors. Whilst these requests are an inconvenience there is no applicable exemption to this information as the ICO have made it clear that they do not consider such information commercially sensitive. The data is readily to
hand therefore significant management time is not accrued.
Financial figures
The majority of requests under this category concern library fines, IT costs, legal fees and expenses. We have received individual requests on a small number of issues including costs of artwork, car parking fees, accommodation fees and funding. This information was not considered commercially sensitive and was therefore released to the requestors.
Applied Exemptions
The most common exemption applied, particularly under partially disclosed requests, is personal data. In the main these requests concerned statistics which were so detailed and/or sensitive that disclosing the information would risk unreasonable identification of individuals.

The following exemptions have been applied, either to whole requests or partially:

Commercial interests 10
Personal Data 62
Information already published 18
Information not held 13
Legal professional privilege 1
National security 4
Intended for future publication 2
Vexatious 4

Some of those specific requests over this two year period:

  • Statistics for disciplinary actions taken against students 2010 – present
  • Statistics for Welsh domicile students
  • Student parking fines
  • University investments
  • Server Hardware Maintenance and Software Licensing Contracts
  • the number of UG Taught and PG programmes 12/13 and 11/12 that did not enrol any students
  • Number of students employed in University catering and library departments
  • Amount paid out in hardship funds over last 3 years
  • University Employee Statistics
  • FOI

  • Statistics for research staff recruitment
  • Information and statistics on student bursaries
  • Information on Microscopes Tender
  • Internet traffic
  • Statistics on parking fines issued
  • Statistics for Physics applicants
  • Information and figures relating to Common Purpose
  • Payments from the Pharmaceutical Industry
  • Statistics on changing employment patterns in the public sector
  • Information on admissions cycle for A100 Medicine Course
  • Information on English classes, student figures and fee income
  • Information on research sabbaticals
  • Information on PhD qualifications of staff
  • Information relating to the University’s parking contract
  • Statistics for students failing first year exams
  • Statistics on student housing
  • Information and statistics on student bursaries
  • Information relating to clinical trials
  • Information on Mobile Phone Contracts

Is it worth it? I am dubious. Essentially we spend a great deal of time and effort and public money responding to this stuff and I struggle to see the benefit for anyone, including the requestors. This list also doesn’t include my personal favourite of all dumb FOI requests received (it was before 2011): a request for data on reported hauntings in university buildings. Not quite as bad as the Leicester City Council zombie attack readiness request but still pretty daft. And no matter how silly or pointless such requests may be we have to treat them all equally seriously.

Back to Blair. He claims that FoI is not used, for the most part, by “the people”, but by journalists. His view is that “For political leaders, it’s like saying to someone who is hitting you over the head with a stick, ‘Hey, try this instead’, and handing them a mallet.” It sometimes feels a bit like that in universities too.

(With thanks to Sam Potter for providing the University of Nottingham material included here.)

The Imperfect University: More and more regulation

More Regulatory Woes

A recent speech by the Universities Minister focused on his apparent desire to reduce regulation for institutions: “We are in a government that understands the value of autonomy,” Mr Willetts said.

Mr Willetts talked about the possibility of reducing data collection requirements as well as the likelihood of universities escaping some EU regulation following the shift to majority private funding as a result of the new fees regime.

Both of these would be welcome steps. The burden of excessive regulation is a significant problem for universities. It might be thought that as the size of the public contribution to higher education funding declined this would be reflected in a reduction in red tape. Unfortunately, despite the rhetoric, universities are left with the feeling that the weight of regulation tends to keep growing rather than reducing.

So will the reduction in public funding really mean less government involvement in university affairs? Sadly, no. Rather than cuts in government funding to HE resulting in a bonfire of red tape, there is a whole host of new or augmented regulations, including:

  • The new fee arrangements which institutions are all deeply engaged in preparing for the implementation of at present
  • Changed student number controls, with the uncertainties of AAB+ and bidding for the 20,000 students at the margin
  • The move to more comprehensive annual access agreements with OFFA
  • The changed financial memorandum between institutions and HEFCE
  • New visa arrangements for Tier 2, staff, and Tier 4, students, together with monitoring arrangements for the latter
  • The Key Information Set (KIS) which will require all universities to provide more information to prospective students
  • The proposed introduction of a Student Charter
  • The idea of extended transcript information for all graduates through the Higher Education Achievement Record
  • The revised Quality Assurance Agency institutional review method
  • The increased burden of Freedom of Information requests
  • Developments in the work of the Office of the Independent Adjudicator
  • Charities regulation.

This is only part of the picture. The cost to the sector of compliance with this regulatory framework is significant. And this really is not what universities need right now. Part of the burden is data collection and the Information Landscape Project, announced by the Minister in the same speech, is intended to address this:

The BIS White Paper ‘Students at the Heart of the System’ discusses a new regulatory framework for HE in England and explicitly tasks HESA, working with the Higher Education Funding Council for England, the Higher Education Better Regulation Group and the Information Standards Board for education and skills, to redesign the information landscape in order to arrive at a new system that meets the needs of a wider group of users; reduces the duplication that currently exists and results in timelier and more relevant data.

Will this make a difference? We will see. Universities have been here before though and have yet to see a real impact on regulation.

Policy, Regulation and Lies?

So, how big is the accountability ‘burden’ on institutions? Looking back over the past dozen years there are several attempts to measure and to reduce or improve regulation. In 2004 PA Consulting, following up an earlier report on accountability costs, investigated changes in accountability costs as perceived by the universities they contacted. The study cited a number of changes since 2000 including the introduction of a revised QAA framework and reduced requirements from HEFCE in terms of bidding, tendering and consultations. The paper concluded, on the basis of its survey, that the accountability cost to the sector had declined over the four year period to the equivalent of £188m (at 2000 prices), a reduction of 25%. However, it is also noted that this was the equivalent to the ‘annual income of two large universities’ (at that time) and therefore ‘a cause for continued attention’. Something of an understatement, especially given the ‘slightly disconcerting’ range of additional accountability requirements identified in the report. These findings were commented on favourably by the (then) Minister for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education in his presentation of the Government response to the Interim Report of the Better Regulation Review Group (in 2004).

The Better Regulation Review Group was succeeded by the Higher Education Regulation Review Group (HERRG). HERRG was established to ‘introduce a stage of informed scrutiny into the policy making process’. The impact of both groups was, arguably, negligible. It is difficult to muster much confidence that the latest incarnations of this kind of task force will be any more beneficial in terms of reducing the bureaucratic burden.

There is always a gap between policy as formulated and as implemented. The simplistic nature of the instrumental interpretation of relationship between policy and evaluation is rational but disconnected from reality. Unfortunately though, evaluation is often seen in this way, as the provision of information to policy makers or stakeholders who prefer simply described and preferably numerical outcomes. The disappointment at the lack of measurable output inevitably leads to a desire for further regulation in order to deliver greater confidence in the results of policy. The consequences of this though can be inimical to the intended ends of the original policy and corrosive of trust.

Victims of our own success

The role of HE in creating the professional labour force of the UK public sector is one example of how successful universities have been and how vital is their role in contemporary society. Given the importance of universities then the desire for intervention should not come as a surprise but the interventionist approach which characterises regulation in HE is also part of wider trends and a diminution of an historical trust which no longer appears to offer adequate reassurance of the quality and standard of HE provision. This decline in trust results in heavy transaction costs and, associated with the move towards controlling institutions via contract and regulation, matters have to become more explicit rather than implicit. It is difficult though to see this reduction in trust in institutions as anything other than a long term and irreversible trend. The very nature of the national quality assurance framework, for example, would seem to reinforce this and it is difficult to imagine that the historical basis of trust can be reconstructed.

Regulations - lots of them

Other angles

Some other interesting views: Martin Wolf [1] has argued that universities are, in effect, a nationalised industry which accepted their financial dependence on the state with the foundation of the UGC in 1919. The government has asked institutions to assure quality without providing the funds needed to ensure it and the less generously the government funds, the more it interferes with the universities. That has certainly been the experience in the last few years. Salter and Tapper [2] suggest that, whereas Robbins saw total institutional freedom as necessary for the efficient operation of universities, in the 1980s the principle of HE regulation was established to ensure the efficient use of public funds and then, having developed this far, specific accountability arrangements were needed.

The costs of regulation of HE outweigh the extremely limited benefits. Indeed the Better Regulation Task Force report says that the HE sector has ‘earned the right to more autonomy’ and that multiple audits, excessive data requirements and over-restrictive funding are ‘symptomatic of a lack of trust between government and the HE sector’.[3] The Chairman of the Task Force observes that ‘there is no evidence that the sector is particularly prone to management or financial failings or failures to deliver on academic performance’. The statement suggests that earned autonomy is a key theme for government which wants to see it applied more in HE. The report refers to the PA Consulting study (quoted above) which estimates the accountability burden for HE to be £250m per annum and notes that the National Audit Office regards HE as a low risk sector in terms of fraud and malpractice.

The changes made in HE regulation in the first decade or so of the 21st Century have not resulted in the reduction in burden and cost which is called for. The claimed 25% reduction in the burden of regulation between 2000 and 2004 seems extremely modest in the light of the above (incomplete) list of regulatory interventions which includes a number of new requirements replacing the eliminated accountability demands.

Private HE institutions, which are expected to increase in number under the new fee regime, will benefit from significantly lighter regulation. However, for everyone else there remains the seemingly iron law that as government funding declines the volume and range of government regulation inevitably increases. So, less money and ever greater constraints on how it can be spent. No matter what the Minister may say.

It could be worse?

Things may be difficult in universities but they could be an awful lot worse according to a recent story in the TES about the appearance of Geoff Russell, chief executive of the Skills Funding Agency (SFA), before the Public Accounts Committee which was considering how bureaucracy should be reduced in the FE sector:

Mr Russell’s retirement may be imminent but, as the hearing made clear, few expect the red tape that has stifled the sector for so long to be untangled any time soon. The committee was informed that, for every £5 that goes to FE, £1 is swallowed up by bureaucracy. The biggest difficulties, MPs heard, are caused by colleges having to deal with very different data obligations and regulations from several agencies simultaneously. A general FE college offering higher education provision, Mr Lang explained, has to accommodate the requirements of four different funding bodies – the Department for Education, the Young People’s Learning Agency, the SFA and the Higher Education Funding Council for England – as well as policy directives from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS).

That’s pretty expensive and works out at more than £150 per student according to the National Audit Office. Things may be bad for the universities but at least they aren’t this bad. So, should we feel lucky?

What is to be done?

There has been only one substantive change in the last decade to the mass of regulation loaded onto institutions: the ending of subject-based inspection of universities (Subject Review or TQA as it was originally known). Whilst undoubtedly welcome and beneficial, the gain the ending of such inspections represented has more than been replaced by other forms of regulation. So the burden continues to grow. One step forward, two steps back.

What then are universities to do? In order to respond to the ever increasing burden of regulation I would suggest that the following steps are worthy of consideration:

  • Don’t put too much faith in Ministerial rhetoric when it comes to reducing bureaucracy;
  • When working out how to deal with all of the different regulatory demands try to sort what really matters from what is less important – assuring quality and standards, and complying with the demands of the QAA is pretty important as is legal compliance with health and safety, employment and equality legislation but other regulations may be less significant;
  • Protect core activities, ie teaching and research, from the impact of regulation as far as is possible;
  • In most cases, go for minimal compliance rather than ‘gold-plating’ of procedures to respond to regulation – this often means steering away from what may be seen as ‘best practice’;
  • Object to new regulations wherever possible – work with others for greater effect;
  • Don’t be deflected from delivering the agreed university strategy by regulation.

Will we see a reduction in the regulatory burden as Mr Willetts claims? We might, but it is unlikely to make a big difference. My advice? Don’t hold your breath.


[1] Wolf, M (2002), ‘How to save the British Universities’, Singer and Friedlander Lecture, delivered on September 26 2002 at Magdalen College, Oxford

[2] Salter, B and Tapper, T (2000), ‘The politics of Governance in Higher Education: the Case of Quality Assurance’, Political Studies, 48(1), pp66-87.

[3] Better Regulation Task Force (22 July 2002), Press release for Higher Education: Easing the burden, London: Cabinet Office.

ICO: private email accounts are subject to FOI

New regulatory joy from the Information Commissioner’s Office

The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) has published some exciting new guidance making it clear that information held in private email accounts is subject to the Freedom of Information Act:

Information Commissioner, Christopher Graham said:

“It should not come as a surprise to public authorities to have the clarification that information held in private email accounts can be subject to Freedom of Information law if it relates to official business. This has always been the case – the Act covers all recorded information in any form.

“It came to light in September that this is a somewhat misunderstood aspect of the law and that further clarification was needed. That’s why we’ve issued new guidance today with two key aims – first, to give public authorities an authoritative steer on the factors that should be considered before deciding whether a search of private email accounts is necessary when responding to a request under the Act. Second, to set out the procedures that should generally be in place to respond to requests. Clearly, the need to search private email accounts should be a rare occurrence; therefore, we do not expect this advice to increase the burden on public authorities.”

Key points set out in the guidance include:

Where a public authority has decided that a relevant individual’s email account may include official information which falls within the scope of the request and is not held elsewhere, it will need to ask that individual to search their account.

Where people are asked to check private email accounts, there should be a record of the action taken. The public authority needs to be able to demonstrate, if required, that appropriate searches have taken place.

It is accepted that, in certain circumstances, it may be necessary to use private email for public authority business. There should be a policy which clearly states that in these cases an authority email address should be copied in to ensure the completeness of the authority’s records.

I hope that’s clear for everyone. Happy new year!

Preparing for a zombie attack: the tyranny of FOI

So should every public authority be preparing for this?

Entertaining story on BBC News about Leicester City Council where a worried member of the public has forced the Council to admit it is unprepared for a zombie invasion:

The authority received a Freedom of Information request which said provisions to deal with an attack, often seen in horror films, were poor. The “concerned citizen” said the possibility of such an event was one that councils should be aware of.

“We’ve had a few wacky ones before but this one did make us laugh,” said Lynn Wyeth, head of information governance. The Freedom of Information Act allows a right of access to recorded information held by public authorities. Ms Wyeth said she was unaware of any specific reference to a zombie attack in the council’s emergency plan, however some elements of it could be applied if the situation arose.

So far, so funny. But this highlights one of the fundamental problems with the Freedom of Information Act: there is no sanity test. The City Council had to respond to this as if it were any other ‘normal’ FOI request, regardless of the waste of public money in so doing. Universities up and down the country get the same kind of nonsense on a daily basis, requiring staff in all parts of the institution to waste their time searching for documentation to satisfy the requirements of the Act. Usually the request is from a lazy journalist, a conspiracy theorist, a person with a grudge or someone seeking information for commercial gain. Universities should not be subject to this Act, it serves no public interest in our context and simply wastes public money.

And, to save you asking, no, there isn’t specific provision for dealing with zombie attacks in the University of Nottingham’s incident response plan.

Regulation, Regulation, Regulation

More Regulatory Woes

In University Governance: Questions for a New Era, Professor Malcolm Gillies looks at a whole set of issues around university governance. A previous post noted his suggestion about a greater involvement of alumni but he suggests that they will become more important than the state, at least in governance terms, because of the change in balance of funding from public to private, ie from government to graduate:

42. State denial:  The withdrawal of the state as chief funding agent of higher education creates new balances in governance authority.  The body which can be most expected to fill that space is the alumni, as they now become the chief funding agent of most English universities in direct replacement of that state interest, through their decades-long repayment of state-provided loans.  The alumni also have the greatest, life-long stake in the institution’s reputation and its protection.  They understand the institution’s symbolic value.

But will the reduction in public funding really mean less government involvement in university affairs? Sadly, no. Rather than cuts in government funding to HE resulting in a bonfire of red tape, there is a whole host of new or augmented regulations, including:

  • The new fee arrangements which institutions are all deeply engaged in considering at present
  • Student number controls, which may well change in the light of fee developments
  • The move to more comprehensive annual access agreements with OFFA
  • The changed financial memorandum between institutions and HEFCE
  • New visa arrangements for Tier 2, staff, and Tier 4, students, together with monitoring arrangements for the latter
  • The Key Information Set (KIS) which will require all universities to provide more information to prospective students
  • The proposed introduction of a Student Charter
  • The idea of extended transcript information for all graduates through the Higher Education Achievement Record
  • The revised Quality Assurance Agency institutional review method
  • The increased burden of Freedom of Information requests
  • Developments in the work of the Office of the Independent Adjudicator

Private HE institutions, which are expected to increase in number under the new fee regime, benefit from significantly lighter  regulation. However, for everyone else there remains the seemingly iron law that as government funding declines the volume and range of government regulation inevitably increases. So, less money and ever greater constraints on how it can be spent.

WikiLeaks for Higher Education

Because you can never have too many distractions…

The Chronicle of Higher Education has a report on the launch of “UniLeaks”:

WikiLeaks, scourge of governments worldwide, now has a copycat for academe. And the new group is itching to publish your university’s deepest secrets.

Its Web site, UniLeaks, debuted this month with a pair of open letters to university leaders in Australia and Britain. The Australian activists who run UniLeaks are pushing for openness in the face of what they see as the corporatization of higher education. They complain of unprofitable courses abolished, employees made less secure, and students reduced “to mere customers or clients of the university.”

But are there any more open public authorities than universities? In the UK there are many ways for staff or students to voice their concerns within institutions without fear. There is also the Freedom of Information Act which makes it possible to get just about anything you want. And the fact that, by their very nature, universities are very open organisations.

At a time of significant financial challenge though what universities really don’t need is to spend more time and money engaged in pointless diversionary activity (FOI compliance costs enough as it is thank you) – responding to this kind of thing merely adds to the burden.

Universities spending millions on ‘inadequate’ websites

Money down the drain?

A report in the Telegraph highlights significant spending by universities on website redesigns which seems to deliver less than spectacular results:

Using Freedom of Information legislation the Telegraph discovered eight examples of universities spending between £100,000 and £280,000 on one-off website redesigns, as much as five times higher than the average spending.

The average annual spending on the maintenance of a university website is £60,375. That figure excludes additional spending on one-off redesigns, for which the average spending is £60,882.

The most expensive university website is the University of Hertfordshire’s, which spent £278,094 on a redesign by Precedent Communications and Straker UK, completed in May 2008. The university also employs staff whose salaries cost £221,500 every year, in addition to £14,500 each year for software support.

The reality is though that every university will account for its spend on its website differently with some being more centralised and others being more devolved. Whichever way you look at it though, spending £60k a year on maintaining a website seems an extremely modest investment for such a key recruitment, promotional and communications tool.

The report also quotes a survey by Times Higher Education which asked sixth form pupils to rate university websites:

The survey split university websites into three categories — well performing, average performing and badly performing — based on five principles including accessibility, contact information, the availability of good feedback from students, the uniqueness of the website and the quality of insight into the campus experience. Comparing spending information with the Times Higher Education survey suggests that some universities may be under-investing in their websites.

So, the conclusions are that some universities are under-investing and others are spending too much and no-one has really got the balance right. Helpful.

Freedom of Information Requests to UK Universities

A new website offers help with FOI requests

Reports are compiled by sending the same FOI request to all 125 UK universities and tabulating the responses. These are a useful way of highlighting aspects of a university which differ from the majority or examining key features of the higher education system. If you have a suggestion for a topic that you would like us to research please e-mail details…

With thanks to everyone who has told me about the AcademicFOI.Com site .

“Universities are crumbling”…

…according to a “secret database”

The Guardian claims a bit of a scoop following a Freedom of Information request on building conditions in universities:

Scores of university halls of residences and lecture theatres in the UK were judged “at serious risk of major failure or breakdown” and “unfit for purpose”, a secret database obtained after a legal battle by the Guardian reveals. Some of the most popular, high-ranking institutions, such as the London School of Economics, had 41% of their lecture theatres and classrooms deemed unsuitable for current use, while Imperial ­College London had 12% of its non-residential buildings branded “inoperable”. At City University, 41% of the student digs were judged unfit for purpose. Universities argue they have spent hundreds of millions in refurbishment since the judgments were made two years ago and use some of the buildings for storage purposes only.

Large amounts have been spent on capital improvements in the last few years but the backlog, following years of underfunding and neglect, was substantial. The position will undoubtedly have improved further since the survey referred to here but it is inevitable that there will still be poor building stock around the country. So, not clear what the shock is here.

The government agency that holds the information, the Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce), was forced to reveal it after an information tribunal ruled in the Guardian’s favour, agreeing that it was in the public’s interest for the data to be made public.

It looks like then that the difficulty of securing release of the information became the story here rather than the data itself which, whilst disappointing, is not exactly surprising.

“Plagiarism up 700%” at University of Nottingham

Slight misinterpretation of non-comparable data

According to a shocking report in Impact, which doesn’t let facts get in the way of a sensational story, plagiarism is up 700% at the University of Nottingham:

The University of Nottingham has insisted that cheating is not skyrocketing among its students, following the emergence of figures which show a significant rise in recorded plagiarism at the institution in the last five years. According to records released under the Freedom of Information Act, 280 students were caught submitting copied work in coursework last year compared to 38 in 2004: a rise of over 700%. Another 11 were found to have cheated in exams in the 2008/09 session.

The University also reported 123 second offenders caught in the last five years. Only four of the culprits were expelled, while most were allowed to continue studying after having their marks docked.

But the real issue is that the means of detecting and recording plagiarism have significantly changed and, most importantly, new software has been introduced to detect and deter plagiarism.

Citing an investment in plagiarism detection software and a change in the system for gathering plagiarism data, a spokesman for the University argued that “There is no clear evidence that plagiarism and cheating have actually increased to this extent.”

In an official statement, the University spokesman said: “In 2006 the university invested in plagiarism detection software to assist our academics. This accounts in part for a noticeable rise in cases detected and proven.

“It is impossible to attempt to extrapolate increases or draw any conclusions from the limited and non-comparable data currently available in relation to plagiarism. Direct comparison is unreliable since the information held by schools within the University from before 2006 is incomplete.”

All absolutely correct. Several of the comments which follow the article also acknowledge the University position and offer a helpful critique of the piece which, far from being a serious piece of investigative reporting, is in fact simply an account of the results of an FOI request. A bit like the recent report in the Sun.

The Sun investigates academic offences

The Sun seems to have a new found interest in academic offences. It says that “160 exam cheats were booted out of university last year”.

According to the respected journal:

DIMWITS with notes scrawled on wrists and arms were among 160 exam cheats booted out of university last year. The brainless old wheeze of writing answers on body parts continued to beat hi-tech scams such as accessing the internet with mobile phones, The Sun can reveal.

We submitted a Freedom of Information request to discover the most popular ways of cheating – and which campuses had the most culprits. Worst was Teesside University in Middlesbrough – where 17 students were caught. Middlesex University expelled 15, followed by Kingston (10), Sheffield (7) and University College London (6).

Scams were: Notes written on SKIN, including palms and legs; BUYING coursework such as essays off the internet; STEALING – like the Chester University student who swiped another’s memory stick and passed work off as theirs. Faking ILLNESS to have poor results upgraded; Nipping to the LOO after hiding notes there; PLAGIARISING work on the web and HIDING notes in pencil cases and dictionaries; STAND-INS taking the exam; PRETENDING a bereavement affected performance – and lastly using a MOBILE.

Great to see tabloids interested in this particular aspect of higher education.