Universities are struggling to cope with an explosion of student plagiarism caused by the rise of modular courses, increasing lecturers' workloads and the popularity of the internet.
A conference at the University of Northumbria last week found that plagiarism was also becoming increasingly difficult to detect. And one delegate claimed that the increasing recruitment of fee-paying overseas students was exacerbating the problem.
Delegates found wide variations between universities and departments in their handling of the problem. Definitions of plagiarism varied and the leniency of examiners often depended on subject area or the importance of the module or exam to the final degree classification.
Tony Dickson, deputy vice-chancellor at the University of Northumbria, said: "We have always had plagiarism, but the context is changing. New kinds of courses are bringing new kinds of problems. Most courses are now modular, so there is an increase in the volume of assessment and an increased volume of plagiarism.
"But modularisation also leads to an increased load on academics, who have less time to spend on each assessment, making plagiarism more difficult to spot."
New software packages that help to detect style variations are being used and have the potential to help. One package, Moss - Measure of Software Similarity - identifies work that students have copied from each other.
Professor Dickson also said there were cultural difficulties in dealing with plagiarism from overseas students. "There are different assumptions about the nature of learning. In some countries students do most of their learning by rote and plagiarism means a different thing. There is a less pronounced emphasis on originality."
The conference organisers hope to draw up national guidelines. The Quality Assurance Agency called on institutions to set clear guidelines on cheating.
Soapbox, page 16