Entire student households are being caught cheating in online university exams, lawyers have warned as collusion becomes ‘endemic’.
The shift from exam halls to virtual assessments during the coronavirus crisis has seen rising numbers of students accused of malpractice, facing expulsion or having to repeat the year, experts say.
Forced to sit exams in their bedrooms, some students are sharing questions with their housemates, by photographing answers and copying them, or taking it in turns to complete sections of the paper.
While MPs have stepped up calls for fee-paying “essay mill” websites to be outlawed, lawyers warn cheating is increasingly rife among peers themselves and through social media sites such as Snapchat.
In one recent case, dozens of undergraduates were exchanging answers on a social media group in real-time during an online exam, prompting one to take screenshots and inform university officials.
University plagiarism software can detect identical errors and typos in responses, experts said, leading to students being hauled through disciplinary proceedings.
"Clients tell us that collusion is so rife that it has become normalised, not colluding is the exception," Dr Daniel Sokol, a barrister at 12 King’s Bench Walk, told The Telegraph.
"Some feel aggrieved that they have been caught and punished when most of their year has done exactly the same thing without penalty."
This month alone, Mr Sokol, who set up the Alpha Academic Appeals service which represents students in academic misconduct cases, has received more than 120 queries.
“Punishments for collusion can be serious, leading in some cases to repeating the exam with a cap of the pass mark, repeating the year, a lower degree classification or fitness to practise procedures,” he said.
Robin Jacobs, a barrister who handles academic misconduct cases at SinclairsLaw, has also seen multiple students in the same household get caught cheating in recent months.
Grasping the scale of the rise of cheating is hampered by the lack of national figures, but in April leaked documents at Bristol University said “online assessment has exacerbated collusion and breaches in academic integrity”, with plans to add supervision in some cases.
This summer, many universities have rolled out unsupervised online tests that allow students a window of 24 hours or even days to submit their work.
University leaders have been accused of “sticking their heads in the sand” over the collusion problem, with most undergraduates having been taught online for the past year.
Some tests use proctoring software that monitor eye and body movements, and require a 360 degree scan of the bedroom, but institutions have been reluctant to impose draconian measures that invade privacy.
Mr Sokol said: "This is now a major problem that has reached endemic proportions. I had one student who said the degree is worthless – even the students seem to think that the degree has no worth and they just have to get it.
"We’re seeing a massive rise [in cheating] but I still think that the number of people caught are a small fraction."
He wants tutors to give students examples of graduates whose degrees and employment prospects have been ruined by cheating, rather than just telling them not to cheat.