Update on plagiarism

The issue of plagiarism is an increasingly challenging one for educational institutions. The advent of the internet has resulted in an explosion of opportunities for such activities and ever more sophisticated ways of detection. Consequently, there has been a commensurate increase in the number of education provider/student disputes regarding alleged plagiarism.

The Office of the Independent Adjudicator (OIA), which specifically excludes disputes involving academic judgments from its remit, has so far taken the stance that it will not adjudicate on plagiarism disputes because they always involve academic judgments.

However, this view was recently rejected by the High Court in the case of R (Mustafa) v Office of the Independent Adjudicator [2013] EWHC 1379 (Admin). In Mustafa, Males J found that although the question of whether plagiarism has been committed will often involve an academic judgment, it need not necessarily do so. For example, if a student lifted an entire essay verbatim from the internet, no academic judgment would be needed to come to the conclusion that the essay was plagiarised.

The implication is that some plagiarism disputes could now potentially come under OIA's jurisdiction, and OIA could overturn a finding on plagiarism, on the occasions where a finding of plagiarism does not revolve around an academic judgment. Admittedly, the occasions where a finding of plagiarism does not involve an academic judgment will be the minority, but nonetheless the possibility is open.

Student disputes

Complaints and claims by students are on the up. A side effect of the huge increase in tuition fees has been that students are now behaving more and more like consumers, and are looking to ensure that they get value for money from their education more than ever before.

Students are prepared to challenge their education provider if they feel that they are not getting the quality of education or service that they are paying for, or if they feel that they have not been fairly treated.

Disputes can be damaging for institutions in a number of ways:

  • they are risky (the outcome cannot be predicted with any certainty);
  • they are expensive to deal with;
  • they use up administrative resources that have to be diverted to dealing with the dispute;
  • they can result in bad publicity and be damaging to an institution's reputation.  

Becoming involved in disputes from time to time is unavoidable, and most businesses are involved in disputes at some point. However, there are steps that you can take to:

  • reduce the chances of a dispute arising in the first place;
  • protect your organisation if one does arise;
  • correctly manage disputes so as to minimise their impact.

Avoiding a dispute in the first place

A lot of problems and headaches can be avoided at the outset of a dispute if you have got your paperwork in order. That means:

  • getting the terms of contract right (especially your terms and conditions) so that they protect your position;
  • keeping an archive of documents such as regulations, codes of practice, student handbooks and marking schemes. You may well need to refer back to these in future as they could be important in determining the terms of the contract between student and education provider;
  • ensuring your organisation has procedures in place to deal with complaints early before they escalate. A well thought-out and publicised internal complaints procedure could dispose of a dispute before it escalates to external forums such as the courts or the OIA.  

What to do if a dispute arises

Despite taking all possible precautions and with the best will in the world, some disputes will still be unavoidable.

When that happens, it is vital that the dispute is handled correctly, because handling it badly could inflame feelings and make the situation even worse:

  • deal with complaints promptly and efficiently;
  • do not fragment administrative arrangements. Centralise the reporting of and the management of disputes. Ensure that there is continuity in terms of the people dealing with the dispute;
  • speak to your solicitors early on before the matter escalates. They will be able to advise you on a range of options which could defuse the dispute before it becomes public or gets as far as the courts;
  • consider alternative dispute resolution (ADR). This refers to a number of different processes that are available to resolve disputes without the need for litigation eg negotiation and mediation.