Waiting for the Verdict

Waiting for the Verdict

- in English, Feature story
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@Lundagård
Illustration: Caroline Roos Bergman

The time of uncertainty is long for those students who are reported for cheating, and risk becoming longer as reports  increase. Lundagård has dug deeper into the university’s own justice machinery. 

Text: Felicia Green
Translation: Anna Andersson
Illustrations: Caroline Roos Bergman

Day one at 14.10

Ten minutes after the designated time, a law student enters the exam hall. She sits in an empty seat, sets a booklet on the floor and raises her hand to attract attention from the proctor of the exam. After receiving a notification two weeks later of her suspected cheating, the student explains that at the time, she was uncertain whether the book was allowed for the exam. By raising her hand, she had hoped to confirm with the exam proctor.

The number of reports of suspected cheating at Lund University (LU) has increased considerably in recent years. From having issued about twenty notifications per year during the 2000’s, the number has now exceeded 100 per year. However, the increase is not unique to LU. According to statistics from the University Chancellor’s Office (UKÄ), the number of disciplinary cases related to suspected cheating has almost doubled over ten years. In 2005, 424 cases were reported at Swedish higher education institutions. Ten years later, 828 cases were reported in 2015.

The reason behind this increase of cases is unknown to Hanna Stam, a lawyer at the University’s Legal Department. However, she sees the use of the plagiarism control tool Urkund as a plausible factor.
”This kind of tool makes it easier to detect cheating. But it’s only my speculation that it affects the number of notifications. I don’t think that students are cheating more now than before. It is important to keep in mind that one hundred notifications may sound like a lot, but it is not a big percentage of the entire student population”, she says.

”The most common reported infringement is plagiarism in assignments, take-home exams and papers. Last year, 75 of the cases concerned plagiarism and unauthorized cooperation. That’s about 70 percent of the total number of notifications that year, and the data looks the same almost every year. The use of cell phones in the exam halls are also a common reason for a suspected cheating charge”, says Hanna Stam.

It is the Higher Education Ordinance that regulates disciplinary offenses such as cheating. According to the Ordianance, suspected charges of disciplinary offenses shall be reported to the Vice-Chancellor promptly, who will then investigate the case.  In practice, at LU, and most other Swedish universities, it means that the university’s lawyers do it on behalf of the Vice-Chancellor.

 

Day one at 15.00 

During the law exam, the tardy student is told to wait for another exam proctor to get an answer as to whether the book on the floor is allowed or not.

An hour passes before the exam proctors begin to move through the hall to check the materials the students have brought with them. Five of the students in the hall get stuck at inspection. These students have brought ”unauthorized literature” with them. In other words, the students have books that prior to the exam have been noted to be forbidden. One of these students is the student who arrived ten minutes late.

In the coming months, their affairs at the University’s Legal Department will generate hundreds of pages, including evidence and opinions from both the students and the notifiers.

 

“Who wants to be a cheater?” The rhetorical question comes from Carina Yourstone. She has worked as a psychiatric nurse and curator for the Student Health for 23 years. Over the years, she has supported several students who have been suspected of cheating, both through talks and by being acting as a support during meetings with the Disciplinary Board.

Seated in one of the two red armchairs separated by a small table with handkerchiefs, she repeats the question and then develops the reasoning.

”It’s shameful. You can imagine how it is – what will ”everyone else” think? Then you face the risk of having to face something similar to a court of law with the the Vice-Chancellor, student representatives and lawyers present”, says Carina Yourstone, pointing one hand to the ceiling of the room.

A couple of floors up in the same building are Hanna Stam and her colleagues at the university’s legal department. Last year, the department received 105 notifications of suspected cheating.

”After receiving a notification of suspected cheating from an institution, we review it and look at what more information is required. If it is suspected plagiarism, for example, we may request the student’s essay. If it is an exam, it may be that we want to speak with the proctors of the exam,” says Hanna Stam.

 

Day seventeen

A few days before Midsummer’s Eve, the five students are contacted by two amanuensis, officials, at the Faculty of Law. They are notified of the charges that are underway at the Legal Department and are asked to submit any additional statements within two weeks. In the statements that come in from the students, similar explanations are given as to why they brought the unauthorized books to the exam: they simply missed the information about whether or not they were allowed to bring them. One explains this mistake because of stress, another student thought the book was allowed in previous exams.

Last year, a total of 109 LU students’ cases were handled by the Vice-Chancellor or Disciplinary Board. The students were contacted by Hanna Stam and her colleagues about the charges against them.

”Often we give them approximately two weeks for the student to express their side of the story. They may ask for more time. But it is good for everyone involved, and especially the student, that it goes as fast as possible”, says Hanna Stam.

For counseling and support through the process, notified students are not only referenced to Student Health, but also to the Student Representative at Lund University Student Union.

On the third floor of the AF building is the office of Anders Törnkvist. He acts in the role of Student Representative and receives about 20 students suspected of cheating annually.

“Mainly, what I can do for them is to inform them about how the process works. I can also guide them in formulating their statements on the matter. I am also involved as support if the case were to end with the Disciplinary Board. If students want to appeal the decision of the Board to the Administrative Court in Malmö, I can also help by assisting in how a student should proceed, he says.  By reviewing reports from the last three years, Anders Törnkvist has recently produced statistics on how long the average duration of waiting time is, from when a suspected cheating charge is given until there is a complete protocol from the Disciplinary Board.

”The main reason I wanted to get the statistics was that many reported students experience it as a very long and tough period. I wanted to see how long it actually is”, he says.

The answer is, according to Anders Törnkvist’s calculations, that it takes an average of three months for a case to be reviewed by the Disciplinary Board.

”There are obviously extremes in both directions. The case that took the shortest time during the period I checked on took 23 days. The longest took 162 days. I have ruled out the issues that have been happening over the summer, when the Disciplinary Board has had recess,” he says.

Anders Törnkvist sees several factors that extend the duration of the process, for example, the reporting person submits an incomplete notification, which must then be completed. Something that also prolongs time is when the notified student cannot be reached. The fact that the Disciplinary Board does not meet often enough to keep up with all the notifications that come in will also delay the process.

”Of course, it takes some time to investigate the cases, but as a student representative, I feel for the students. Whether the person has cheated or not, it is a very long time to wait and worry about how it will turn out.”

At the University’s legal department there is no target duration of how long it takes to handle the cases more than ”as fast as possible”. According to Hanna Stam’s experience the process from the date of notification by the institution regarding suspected cheating until the matter is closed can take anywhere from two months to a half a year.
”It’s obviously not good for students if it takes a long time. But that’s how it is – it’s a resource issue. We can only do what we can with the time and resources available. At the same time, we are getting more and more issues. We have had many issues in 2017 and the committee only meets a limited number of times a year, which means that the cases ”roll over” from year to year, she says.

At the Legal Department there are still 36 cases left from last year that have not yet been reviewed in the Disciplinary Board. In the spring of 2018, the board has six meetings scheduled. Each meeting that is held is three hours long and usually only four to six cases are reviewed during that time. This means that all of the Disciplinary Board’s scheduled meetings in the spring will be used to handle cases from 2017, while new cases of suspected cheating from 2018 will continue to accrue.

”This is something that worries me,” says Student Representative Anders Törnkvist.  His concern is that the waiting period for registered students will continue to increase during the spring term.

”That’s something I’ll definitely continue to follow up on. As a student delegate, am not responsible for educational policy issues, but I can draw attention to the problem”, he says.

As Vice-Chancellor Torbjörn von Schantz is the chairman of the Disciplinary Board. He believes that the duration of waiting is something that the university needs to improve.

“If there is a weak link in the process, it is the duration of the waiting period between the charge and when it is addressed by the committee. Otherwise, I think the process works well. Our lawyers do a great job and we also have extremely knowledgeable and trusted members in the committee. I’m always impressed by the student representatives.”

To address the problem at its core, he wants to get to the root of the problem.

“Fewer attempts of cheating would expedite the process. I am amazed that despite students being aware of our tools to detect cheating, it continues to persist. This is a topic we will continue to discuss, but the best way to make the process faster is to make sure that there are fewer students trying to take the easy way out with cheating,” says Torbjörn von Schantz.

Would increasing the amount of Diciplinary meetings to shorten the waiting time, or allocating more resources to the disciplinary department be a viable option?

“Of course, they are options and we have actually increased the number of meetings held during my time as Vice-Chancellor  [Torbjörn von Schantz has been Vice-Chancellor since 2015]. However, I want to emphasize how important it is for all students to know the rules. In these cases we can always reiterate that students have been informed about the rules about plagiarism and that you can not even have a phone that is switched on in a pocket during the test,” says Torbjörn von Schantz.

If there is not enough evidence against the notified student, the Vice-Chancellor may either nullify the case or close it without further action. Torbjörn von Schantz can also decide to award a student a warning. However, most cases are handled by the Disciplinary Board. There, the students face three possible outcomes: a warning, suspension or be found innocent, depending on what the board decides. The board may also decide to table the matter if they consider that sufficient information for making a decision is missing.

“If the student is suspended, the head of department will be notified to the institutions where the student is registered for courses. A barrier is added to Ladok, CSN, and also Live @ Lund, says Hanna Stam at the university’s legal department.

According to the Higher Education Ordinance, a student may be sentenced to six months termination in total. At LU, practice is six weeks, but the suspension time may vary, depending on, among other things, how many college credits were cheated on and whether the student has a history of cheating. During the suspension period, the student is neither entitled to study funding from CSN nor allowed to attend the course.

 

Day 116

One of the charged students e-mails to the university lawyers and wonder what the status of the case is. The student writes that she understands that it takes time to investigate, but that it has been a heavy burden to carry since she received the notification.

The reply she receives explains that one reason for the delay is the lack of board meetings over the summer months. As the cases are reviewed in the committee in the order they are received, it will take another one or two months before the student’s case is reviewed.

According to Anders Törnkvist, the waiting time in itself is perhaps the worst the student faces.

”It is an extremely difficult period for them, one filled with concern and uncertainty. To be suspected of cheating leads many to second guess their abilities.”

Often, he receives questions from the accused students about what will happen to CSN, for example. Some even wonder if it is worth to continue studying during the process.

”I recommend that students continue to study as usual until the decision is made. Like the Vice-Chancellor Torbjörn von Schantz and Hanna Stam in the Legal Department, Anders Törnkvist sees the importance of the expediting the process.

”But how this will look in reality is hard to say. More frequent meetings held by the Disciplinary Board is an option, which would allow for more cases to be reviewed.”

In recent months, he has tried to help Lundagård to come into contact with registered students who could provide insight as to how it feels to be suspected of cheating by the university. However, no one was willing to participate.

”Many students find it embarrassing and are afraid that their peers will find out that they have been charged. Shame, coupled with the emotional strain that students experience during this time could be contributing reasons as to why they do not want to speak out about their situation, he says.

Carina Yourstone from the Student Health believes that it is important for students to talk about the situation with someone.

”A student can come here for a confidential meeting, and it may be nice to speak freely with someone anonymous and impartial. The student also has the possibility of contacting the student representative or anyone who they feel comfortable speaking with. The important thing is to have someone talk, cry, and curse with. To share their thoughts and feelings and gain a perspective on life – that you are not going to drown, even if it feels like that”, she says.

For those who are found guilty, Carina Yourstone mentions the opportunity to study on one’s own, to catch up if you need and perhaps prepare for future courses.

”And then you have to learn what is allowed and not allowed in academic studies,” she adds.

In addition to talking, Carina Yourstone stresses the importance of continuing one’s life, despite the charge.

”Continue to live as usual. With all due respect to the fact that it is really difficult. Here’s my mantra: ‘If you are not convicted, you are free’.”

 

Day 136 

More than four months after the law exam, the charges against the five students are reviewed by in the Disciplinary Board. The chairman, Torbjörn von Schantz, one of the amanuensis from the Faculty of Law, one of the reported students, two student representatives, Hanna Stam and one of her lawyer colleagues, are attending. Three of the students are present at the Disciplinary Board meeting in person, one is present via telephone and the last one is absent when the board makes its decision. Three of them are suspended from the university for three weeks each, while two of them are found not guilty. The final student is the one who came late for the exam. The committee finds that the charge against her is based on her mistake, but that they accept the statement that she placed the book on the floor to await approval from one of the exam proctors. Four and a half months after the exam, she is released from the charge of cheating.

Fore more statistics go to the Swedish version of this article.

I väntan på domen 

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