Robert Clarke, 1950-2020

Tributes paid to a ‘contract cheating detective’

March 26, 2020
Robert Clarke

A scholar who largely devoted the latter part of his career to the cause of academic integrity has died.

Robert Clarke was born in Cheltenham in March 1950, studied chemistry at the University of East Anglia (1968-71) and taught that subject at schools in Walsall (1971-4) and Birmingham (1974-8).

He moved to what was then Leicester Polytechnic as an information and advisory officer (1978-80) but spent the bulk of his career at what is now Birmingham City University (1980-2010), latterly as principal lecturer in the School of Computing and Digital Technology. During his time at BCU, he also studied part-time to gain an MSc in business information services from Keele University (1994-8).

Although initially employed to teach in IT services, Mr Clarke soon became one of the founding members of the Department of Computing, helped set up its first degree – a BSc in computing information systems – and taught everything from software engineering to IT strategy. Although he taught all the way up to master’s level, he was particularly effective at motivating the first-year students learning basic programming. His popularity at BCU meant that he was often known as “Uncle Bob”.

Thomas Lancaster, senior teaching fellow in computing at Imperial College London and a former BCU colleague, described Mr Clarke as “an accidental researcher” whose real love was teaching and doing the best for his students. Yet it was precisely because “he didn’t want some students getting an unfair advantage over others” that they began working together on “contract cheating and academic integrity”.

Mr Clarke, Dr Lancaster went on, “thought of himself as a contract cheating detective and would willingly spend his evenings and weekends hunting down contract cheating cases just to make other academics aware this was going on...When he had a success, he’d come beaming to see me with the words ‘another pin in the map’ and the latest country and institution to which he’d tracked a cheating student.”

Together with Dr Lancaster, Mr Clarke played a key role in alerting the sector to the problems and possible solutions through a series of journal and conference papers on plagiarism, essay mills and detecting contract cheating.

Although he took voluntary redundancy in 2010 and became a consultant, Mr Clarke in fact continued his teaching activities at BCU until 2016. He died of a blood clot on 4 March and is survived by his wife Lorna.

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