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Australian University plagiarists risk degrees

Australia, Aug 22: The University of New England will consider stripping students of their degrees if they are found to have cheated, following a spate of plagiarism in one of its masters programs.

Vice-chancellor Alan Pettigrew said yesterday the northern NSW university had examined the theses of 210 students submitted in 2004, 2005 and 2006 and found that a "significant proportion" of them showed evidence of having been copied in slabs or short passages from the internet.

The theses were by fee-paying international students studying information technology externally in a program delivered by a commercial partner of UNE.

Professor Pettigrew would not name the partner organisation, nor say which countries the students came from.

Analyst Simon Marginson, from the University of Melbourne's Centre for the Study of Higher Education, welcomed UNE's "forthright" stance over the incidents. "It's good they're getting serious about it," he said. "This points not just to plagiarism but to the role of partnerships; where there are problems in international education, a lot of them are in this area."

Offshore providers were hard to police, Professor Marginson said.

Consideration of punishment was part of an external panel's examination of the incidents.

"The penalties range from downgrading the mark to failing that element of the program to rescinding the degree in the most severe cases," Professor Pettigrew said. "We are not going to shy away from taking the most difficult steps. We have to protect academic integrity."

The scandal came to light in November when an academic alerted Professor Pettigrew to his suspicions that the theses were tainted. "He brought one example to me and following confirmation that the initial allegation was indeed a case of plagiarism, we immediately set about investigating that case," Professor Pettigrew said.

"And then we also received information from the same academic who said he thought there was more than one case.

"We adopted a working-party approach and decided that the best way to get an indication was to take a sample of the 210 theses.

"Ten per cent of them were examined against internet searches and we found a sufficiently high proportion (of plagiarism) to cause us concern and we went on to study all of the theses."

The 20,000-word theses make up 25 per cent of the marks for the masters program.

Australia's higher education sector has been dogged in recent years by cases of plagiarism and accusations that universities are soft on foreign students because of the high fees they pay.

University of South Australia researcher Tracey Bretag published a paper earlier this year that found many charges of plagiarism against fee-paying foreign students were overturned because of pressure to pass the students.

The University of New England was considering its relationship with the delivering partner, Professor Pettigrew said.

"Quality assurance is the responsibility of both partners," he said. "We are taking this very seriously. Plagiarism is a large concern for universities."

UNE's revised plagiarism policy was approved by the university council last week.

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