More than half of academics admit to ignoring suspected cheating by their students, according to a research paper.
The figure emerged from a study that reveals dramatic variations in what academics regard as cheating - with up to a quarter identifying student collusion as "acceptable" practice.
The paper warns: "Faced with large numbers of academic staff not being able to correctly identify incidents of collusion, believing that collusion is not a serious offence and being unwilling to deal with incidents in a formal manner, it is not surprising that students also do not consider collusion to be a serious offence."
At Least They're Learning Something: The Hazy Line between Collaboration and Collusion will be published in April in the journal Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education.
The finding that 51 per cent of staff "admitted to suspecting cheating and ignoring it" emerged from a number of questions in the survey, which was based on more than 500 responses from staff and students at Hertfordshire University.
The survey finds that collusion - any form of joint effort that deceives an assessor as to who is responsible for the work - is seen as the more acceptable face of student cheating, compared with plagiarism, where students pass off another's work as their own. Both are cases of academic misconduct.
About 17 per cent of staff said collusion showed that "some effort was taking place", which is not the case with plagiarism. Collusion was "less harmful" than plagiarism, according to 10 per cent, because "at least they (students) are learning something".
The study also found that academics differ on where to draw the line between what is and is not acceptable. Many academics approved of practices that were technically unacceptable.
Students and staff were quizzed on nine scenarios describing forms of student behaviour. In one, an example of unacceptable collusion, a highly performing student looks over a colleague's work and points out mistakes and gives the correct answers, which the weaker student incorporates into his final assignment. More than a quarter of staff and a third of students called this "acceptable practice".
In another scenario, two students "work together to produce an assignment, sharing an electronic copy of the work. They produce similar but not identical work". Some 22 per cent of respondents thought this was acceptable even though university rules made clear that it is not.
The report says: "The fact that staff were just as likely as students to draw this conclusion suggests that there may be considerable discrepancy in assessment practice, and inconsistent advice may therefore be given to students."
Anna Cox, a psychologist at University College London and co-author of the report, said the proportion of staff ignoring cheating may be an underestimate. "There are many issues about asking people that kind of thing because people will worry about admitting to it," she said.
Co-author Ruth Barrett, of Hertfordshire, added: "It is not clear always where collaboration stops and collusion starts."
Bob Brecher, page 58