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Academic offences at U of T increased by 35 per cent in 2019–2020, likely due to COVID-19

Arts and science, engineering faculties see largest increase in academic offences
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NANCY JI / THE VARSITY
NANCY JI / THE VARSITY

According to the Provost’s Annual Report on Cases of Academic Discipline, the number of U of T students who committed an academic offence increased from 1,590 to 2,140 in the 2019–2020 academic year — an increase of around 35 per cent. This is the largest increase in academic offences over the past five years, and it marks the first time since the 2016–2017 academic year that offences have gone up rather than down.

The report notes that this increase is most likely related to the COVID-19 pandemic, which resulted in a rushed transition to online learning and the loss of in-person proctoring options right before the winter 2020 exam season. 

The report also details the ways in which the university has adapted its academic integrity strategy since March 2020 through innovative assignment design and informational campaigns. However, some of these measures — especially third-party online proctoring — have received criticism from students. 

Increased number of academic offences

The report attributes the increase in academic offenses to COVID-19, especially in regards to the use of unauthorized aids. Cases of unauthorized aid use nearly doubled this year because of the unique challenges online learning presented with respect to academic integrity. The university notes that some students took advantage of the move to online learning and the fact that exams could no longer be proctored in-person to cheat. 

The university distinguishes between academic offences that can be handled by the division of the university in which they occur and more serious cases, which are handled by the University Tribunal. The vast majority of offences are handled by the relevant division, and this category accounts for most of the increase in academic offences. The graphs and data below apply to cases handled by divisions rather than the Tribunal. 

It should be noted that these numbers only encompass the cases that were caught by the university, and not cases where students committed academic offenses undetected.

The Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering (FASE) and the Faculty of Arts & Science (FAS) were the two divisions with the largest increases in academic offences. 

While the number of students who committed academic offences in the FAS increased by 0.3 per cent, the FASE saw a nearly three per cent increase. This corresponds to approximately an additional 150 academic offences in the 2019–2020 academic year as compared to 2018–2019.

The overall number of students who committed an academic offence increased to 2.3 per cent of the total student population from 1.8 per cent the year prior and 1.6 per cent in 2015-16. Around half of the divisions saw little to no increase in the number of academic offences.

The university saw major increases in both the use of unauthorized aids and instances of plagiarism, which accounted for 43 per cent and 51 per cent of all academic offences, respectively. The number of students who used unauthorized aids went up from 578 in 2018–2019 to 953 in 2019–2020. The same was true of plagiarism cases, which increased from 935 to 1124.

Due to the increased number of cases, some were still being processed at the time the report was released. Consequently, a more accurate picture will be presented in the next annual report for the 2020–2021 academic year. 

The University Tribunal was also affected by COVID-19 and had to pause its operations for several weeks. During that time, it consulted with various stakeholders including Discipline Counsel and Downtown Legal Services to facilitate a smooth transition to electronic hearings. The transition was successful, and the tribunal resumed hearing cases in April of 2020. 

Changes to academic integrity strategy

U of T’s approach to academic integrity is handled by the Provostial Advisory Group on Academic Integrity in collaboration with each division of the university. Normally, they provide workshops to instructors on how to design assessments, outline their responsibilities under the Code of Conduct on Academic Matters, and teach them how to handle academic misconduct.

The group has tackled the new obstacles they’ve faced from COVID-19 both by providing further support to instructors and running a campaign to inform students on what constitutes an academic offence. In conjunction with the Centre for Teaching Support and Innovation, they developed a resource to help instructors develop assignments that would be less prone to academic integrity issues.

Furthermore, the group organized webinars, seminars, and supports for online course design that received positive feedback from instructors. Some divisions also appointed leads to help other instructors in designing courses and in developing innovative methods for preventing academic misconduct.

One of the university’s more controversial moves has been investing in third-party proctoring software. Though the university insists divisions control the use of the software and that professors should put in place other protections against academic misconduct, many students and student unions consider third-party proctoring to be invasive and counterproductive.

The university also designed a campaign, using student focus groups, to disseminate information about academic misconduct. It was launched in October, immediately prior to midterm season, and the campaign sent packages containing informational images to each division, who then posted them to social media and communicated their message to students. 

However, as previously reported in The Varsity, some students are still unclear on the definitions of some forms of academic misconduct and the process once they have been charged with an offence. One anonymous student alleged that a registrar told them not to hire legal counsel for their case because the university might think they were “strong-arming” it. 

In an interview with The Varsity, Daniel Goldbloom, a lawyer who represents U of T students in academic misconduct cases, said he thought this was “bad advice.” In his experience, the university is often relieved when legal counsel is present because a lawyer will typically help students work through issues that might otherwise be drawn out.

He noted that much of his work involves reducing sanctions for students who face charges of academic misconduct. If present, a lawyer can help students contextualize an act of academic misconduct and prove that they have support in place so they won’t repeat the offence. 

Goldbloom added, “Whether it’s from Downtown Legal Services or from a lawyer with significant experience dealing with U of T discipline cases, getting competent legal advice could mean the difference between a minor bump in the road and the end of your academic career at U of T.”