Two recent reports will be giving university vice-chancellors and principals cause for concern. The first appeared in the Guardian and focused on the issue of sexual misconduct on campuses. This is hardly a new problem but the Guardian inquiry revealed that the number of women students today who are prepared to report that they have felt victimised in sexual terms by lecturers and tutors is worryingly high. The report suggested that the issue had reached 'epidemic levels in the UK'. Within hours of its appearance in the paper 60 more women made contact alleging they had suffered sexual harassment.
Responding to a freedom of information question, 120 universities revealed that between sessions 2011-12 and 2016-17, they had had to deal with 169 allegations of sexual misconduct by academics and non-academics. However, most observers agree that this figure greatly under-represents the true scale of the problem as it takes great strength of will for a student to make a formal complaint. Finally the problem is hugely exacerbated by the fact that not all universities seem to have any established system for dealing with or helping students who find themselves in this position.
I began my teaching career in the 1960s. Relationships between members of staff and students were certainly always possible, but they did not appear to happen that often and there was never any suggestion of compulsion. To my knowledge, no student ever made a complaint. One certainly knew of faculty members – often quite senior ones – who had married students, but there was never the slightest suggestion that there was anything improper about such an outcome. It's always possible I was simply too naïve, unaware of what was going on – and there could well have been cases in which students did indeed feel an element of compulsion – but I can only report on what seemed to me to be the case.
In subsequent decades, however, things did begin to change. Student numbers expanded greatly and more importantly changes in society at large – in particular the emergence of the women’s movement – meant that sexual issues began to be more widely and openly discussed. I don't remember exactly when but somewhere around the 1980s I, like many of my colleagues, began to leave my office door open when I was meeting with individual students. Nothing was ever said explicitly. It was not a formal policy. It just seemed a sensible thing to do in a changing climate. A 'just in case' scenario.
In the years that followed – when I became department head – no student came to me complaining of having suffered any form of improper sexual conduct by a member of staff. Again I'm perfectly aware that this does not mean that such conduct never happened – the difficulties facing a student making such a complaint are crystal clear. But I can only report what actually happened – or did not happen.
The situation today is very different. Sexual abuse in a range of forms has become an all too familiar topic. Reticence about it is no longer the norm. That it should be occurring on university campuses comes as no surprise. But that it should be on the scale suggested by the Guardian investigation means that authorities need to take action of some kind. What kind of action? I really don't know. Clearly there is no easy solution. What I would say, however, is that it is now impossible for universities not to have in place systems or arrangements which make it possible for individual students to find help, comfort, and support over this kind of problem. Concern for a university's reputation should never mean that sexual misconduct is covered up rather than effectively dealt with.
The second issue I wish to discuss is also one that is difficult to resolve. It has arisen as a consequence of developments in computing and IT. Early in my career, a student's degree result depended almost exclusively on their performance in degree examinations. However, the view that this reliance on performance in three-hour examination papers did not always deliver a just outcome for all students, gradually brought about change. Performance in essays submitted as course work began to be recognised as part of the final assessment. Such essays were written by students in their own time, and so they were able to make use of existing scholarship in compiling them. The danger of plagiarism was always there, but tutors knew their students well enough to feel they could usually detect it.
In recent years, however, there have been major changes in the way students submit their work. They no longer sit down and write their essay. Rather they are typed on their laptop or computer. They can then be printed out and handed to a tutor for correction and return. However I believe this is not always the procedure. Work can simply pass between computers without having any paper existence. Equally students now access existing scholarship not by going to the library shelves, but by going online. And it is what is available online that is causing a new and worrying problem.
With a click on their keyboard students can access a wide range of so-called 'essay mills'. The government agrees there are at least 100 such 'mills’ in operation, while some investigators suggest there could be as many as 1,000. All of them offer the same kind of service: 'model' essays on any subject in any area and at any academic status – from GCSE or 'A' levels to PhDs. Even the required mark can be designated – say an essay worth a 2.1 grade in an Honours course. What is required of the student? Payment of course: anything between £106 for a piece of 'B' grade GCSE course work to £82,238 for a PhD thesis.
Who are these students? No doubt there is a scattering from across the whole range of university students from those coping with their first year of study to struggling postgraduates. But it may well be the case that the majority are overseas students whose first language is not English. It is argued that they are likely to be studying in, say, engineering or the hard sciences. They are paying extremely high fees in our universities, so the pressure to succeed is intense. Asked for written work of any kind, employing the essay mills' 'models' may well be understandably tempting.
Whatever the truth concerning the categories of student willing to pay for this kind of assistance, our universities are clearly facing a major problem. Old-fashioned plagiarism is not the issue. In fact the majority of UK universities already employ a software system called 'Turnitin' which detects that kind of cheating. But the essay mill writers do not plagiarise – what they write is indeed their own work. The issue is what happens to it when a student buys it. Potentially the problem is on a scale far beyond anything that traditional plagiarism represented.
So what can be done? Jo Johnson, the current universities minister, recognises there is a problem. He accepts that what he calls 'contract plagiarism' is a threat to academic integrity. Apparently new guidelines on how to respond to this campus problem will be published before the beginning of the next academic year. It will be fascinating to see just how rigorous the new form of guidance will be.