Plagiarism row erupts

July 2, 1999

An external examiner for Staffordshire University has resigned in protest after its exam board dismissed at least two cases of proven student plagiarism as "minor".

In documents obtained by The THES, Gordon Pearson, head of the department of management at Keele University, said his position as an external examiner for Staffordshire University Business School's postgraduate courses was "no longer tenable". Dr Pearson had recommended the student plagiarists be expelled but was overruled by the internal exam board.

In letters to the assistant dean of the business school and vice-chancellor, Dr Pearson wrote: "Referring to plagiarism as 'minor' is not appropriate, and the students concerned, despite protracted denials, had eventually admitted their guilt.

"At the examination board I expressed my view that plagiarism was a serious offence and that students found guilty should be expelled. I made it clear that I my overall concern was with the integrity of the course, and broadly the integrityI of coursework assessment."

At a meeting to discuss the plagiarism, Dr Pearson and another external examiner heard that a previous case of plagiarism on the course had received a suspension and the student had been allowed to return to the course after resitting the year. Dr Pearson said he would have accepted this course of action as a compromise, and he had the support of his fellow external examiner. But the exam board took a vote and, against the wishes of the external examiners, opted for a "substantially less severe option".

The university's decision to ignore "the unanimous recommendation of the external examiners", and the refusal to overturn the decision, said Dr Pearson, "was cavalierI and left me with no alternative but to resign".

In an initial response from the university, earlier this month, business school assistant dean Les Trustram said he could not have reversed the decision as it had been made after a ballot. "Once a vote had been democratically taken it is not right to reverse or nullify it, simply because you disagree with it," he said. "I am sorry you feel the way you do, but I do not believe I could have acted in any other way."

Dr Pearson replied: "It seems that if you are to ignore externals' advice so readily there is little point appointing them in the first place."

Last week the deputy vice-chancellor wrote to Dr Pearson. "The university regards plagiarism with the utmost seriousness. It is not part of the university's regulations or notes for guidance to regard plagiarism as a minor breach. In standing by the course of action taken by the chair, I also wish to assure you that the university will review its practices and share this experience to ensure the integrity of its awards."

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