Top universities ‘are turning a blind eye to online exam cheats’ as studies show rates of fraud have risen during the pandemic

  • In one survey last week, a sixth of students admitted asking others for help
  • Techniques for cheating have been openly discussed on student forums
  • Despite this, institutions still plan to offer remote exams next year

Universities stand accused of ignoring mounting evidence that online exams lead to cheating.

Numerous studies show rates of exam fraud have risen during the pandemic, including one survey last week where a sixth of students admitted asking others for help during them. Despite this, institutions still plan to offer remote exams next year.

Chris McGovern, chairman of the Campaign for Real Education, said: ‘Online exams are grossly unfair because they encourage and favour cheating over honesty. Any assessment system that aids and abets fraud should be outlawed.’

In the Covid crisis, institutions were forced to cancel traditional, in-person exams and switch to remote assessments that allowed students to return answers over a 24 or 48-hour period or longer. Few of them were invigilated, although the technology to do so does exist

In the Covid crisis, institutions were forced to cancel traditional, in-person exams and switch to remote assessments that allowed students to return answers over a 24 or 48-hour period or longer. Few of them were invigilated, although the technology to do so does exist.

Techniques for cheating have been openly discussed on student forums.

Minutes of an education committee meeting at University College London (UCL) in October 2021 show the move to online assessment ‘appeared to have led to a large increase in academic misconduct cases’.

UCL uncovered 57 cases of collusion and 42 cases of ‘contract cheating’ where students used essay mills – businesses that allow customers to commission pieces of writing. The minutes lament ‘a significant and concerning expansion’ that resulted in 31 students being expelled.

Despite this and an acknowledgement that the problem ‘may be widely underestimated by the sector’, UCL decided to persist with online exams in 2021-22, with minutes showing a move back to in-person exams was rejected because of problems arranging exam halls for 95,000 people in a short time, continued uncertainty over Covid restrictions and concerns any change would cause ‘significant student dissatisfaction’. Online exams will continue to be offered by many UCL courses next year.

At Durham University, most exams were online this summer and departments seeking in-person exams had to apply for permission. The maths department did so after finding 46 students had cheated the year before.

Minutes of an education committee meeting at University College London (main building pictured) in October 2021 show the move to online assessment ‘appeared to have led to a large increase in academic misconduct cases’

At Nottingham University, online exams were standard in 2021-22 but faculties could request on-campus invigilated exams where there was ‘a good reason to do so’ – but still had to provide an online alternative for remote-study students.

Last night, a UCL spokesman said: ‘Maintaining the highest academic standards is fundamental to ensuring continued trust and confidence in our world-leading research, as well as the individuals who work and study here.

‘As such, students who break our academic integrity regulations face serious penalties, including expulsion from the university.’

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