University of Auckland let students caught cheating during online exams pass them anyway, leaving staff 'appalled'

It comes as the university faces mounting criticism from its own students and staff for failing to monitor for academic misconduct.
It comes as the university faces mounting criticism from its own students and staff for failing to monitor for academic misconduct. Photo credit: File

The University of Auckland let some students who were caught cheating during COVID-affected exams pass them anyway, it's emerged - in some cases with absolutely no bearing on their final grade.

A disgruntled staff member told Newshub their business students avoided meaningful punishments despite being caught using online studying service Chegg to get answers to questions as they were sitting their online exams in 2020.

The university opted to penalise them based on the questions they were found to have cheated on, rather than giving them a fail mark for the whole exam - meaning many got the same overall grade they would've had their cheating never been exposed.

The teaching fellow says the university should have "hammered" these students, but instead let them get away with a "slap of the wrist" that left business faculty staff appalled and only incentivised students to try cheating again.

A University of Auckland spokesperson said penalties are applied "proportionate to the severity and nature of offending", with different penaltie applied depending on how many marks the questions are worth. 

It comes as the University of Auckland faces fresh claims of cheating during online exams and mounting criticism from its own students and staff for failing to monitor for academic misconduct.

The university says its Student Academic Conduct Statute - the policy guiding how it deals with cheating and dishonesty - is now under review, but it will not be shifting exams back in-person by next semester.

'We were all appalled - we couldn't believe it'

A now-retired professional teaching fellow with the university's business faculty told Newshub about 10 students were caught cheating in their course alone during the first semester of 2020.

Given 24 hours to complete the unsupervised exam, which was shifted online due to the COVID-19 pandemic, these students had copy-pasted questions from the exam and uploaded them to Chegg, where they'd been answered by people from around the world within hours.

"It was just as clear as day - you Google [a paper] and suddenly you get a record of the questions that are up there," the staffer recounted.

"Some of them were for the final exam, and there were also questions for four assignments we had. And then I found out it wasn't just my courses - there were other courses as well."

The students were all caught using Chegg to cheat in the same business paper last year.
The students were all caught using Chegg to cheat in the same business paper last year. Photo credit: Getty Images

After an investigation by members of the business faculty in coordination with Chegg, about 10 students who'd used similar formatting or wording to the answers posted to the website were identified and reported to the university's examinations office.

But the university ultimately decided not to fail any of them for misconduct. 

"I was expecting to see these students at least fail the exam minimum, or fail the course maximum. Instead, they docked them just the points on the question that we found on Chegg."

Not only did none of them fail due to the cheating they committed, but many of their grades for their exams and the paper overall were completely unaffected.

The staffer said he had to do the grade change for four of the estimated 10 students. Of those, one had failed before they'd been caught cheating so stayed failed, while another kept their C- mark and two others remained on C.

The examinations office didn't tell him what punishment the other six or so students faced, but based on the effects seen on the four he did mark, he doubts any further punishments were forthcoming for them either.

"I wrote to the [examinations office] and said: 'Did you consider that these students probably accessed more than just one question? For what it's worth, these students cheated. In my experience with other institutions, cheating students would fail the exam or fail the course'.

"'Your proposal is just a slap on the wrist. My students this semester should be told that if Chegg is accessed and we catch them, they will fail. That would be a sufficient deterrent and would be much better for a majority of students that do not cheat.'"

The teaching fellow also pointed out if the students had cheated on a particular question, that probably indicated it was one they would've failed anyway - so penalising them proportionate to the weighting of the questions they was no real punishment.

But his complaint fell on deaf ears - and the lenient approach angered him and many of his fellow teaching staff in the faculty.

"There were a lot of us that were pissed off in my department. We were all just appalled - we couldn't believe it," they said.

"It took a lot of work documenting these guys, contacting Chegg, following up, looking at the questions, seeing how much we should take off - all the time under the assumption something serious was going to happen on the part of the university against these students.

"And then it didn't. And we just kind of all go, 'what's the point?'"

The staffer says the experience deterred him from raising further cheating concerns, which he had acquired evidence of later in 2020.

"I said, 'What's the point? Why should I spend all my time following up on all of this stuff if all the examinations office does is slap these students on the wrist and doesn't do anything?'"

Another source told Newshub the university's various faculties recognise cheating is "a real problem" and are working together to formulate a new policy to combat it.

It's understood an inter-faculty committee has been set up featuring representatives of each of the schools. The next meeting is scheduled for July 28 - but the source warns things at the institution tend to "move very slowly".

"It's hard to get people to agree on penalties because you've got real extremes: people who want to make sure we stamp this out and other people who are more worried about retaining students."

University of Auckland response

The university says the penalty for students caught posting to or copying content from Chegg varies on the weighting of the question, the content, and whether the content was used in their exam submission.

"Marks deducted include removing any advantage gained, plus a further deduction as a penalty," a spokesperson said.

"Penalties applied to cheating in exams is centrally managed... [and] based on the severity of the offence and include being awarded zero marks for the final exam and thus a fail grade in the course or referral to the Discipline Committee.

"Different penalties are applied depending on how many marks the questions were worth." 

The university says it records confirmed cases of academic misconduct, and if a student reoffends that is taken into account in the penalties applied or actions taken against them.

The spokesperson says its Student Academic Conduct Statute - the policy guiding its response to those found guilty of cheating and dishonesty - is currently under review.

But the teaching fellow says the university needs to take a stronger approach.

"If you cheated and you've been caught, you need to be hammered - because if the signal you're going to send is it's just going to get a wrist slap, then they're just going to do it again," he said.

"I understand giving the benefit of the doubt, but there's a time and place where you just draw a line and say enough is enough, you know? It seems to me the University of Auckland is bending over just a little bit too much in favour of these students.

"I'm not exactly sure what the motivation is, but I think it's a bad idea."

The issue with online, unsupervised exams

The new staff complaints are the latest in a string of criticisms of how the University of Auckland has handled its exam processes.

In June, a student told Newshub they estimated the majority of those in their programme were sharing answers and pooling knowledge on internet chat rooms during their exams, as staff were unable to keep tabs on them.

Last week, two other staff members condemned the University of Auckland's decision to let students take exams online and without supervision as "rushed" and "downright embarrassing".

Staff members across multiple faculties have told Newshub their students about their cheating concerns, with one even told agencies in China and South Korea had been hired to take exams on students' behalf.

Meanwhile Professor Peter Wills, an academic staff member in the Department of Physics, said they'd caught a student using Chegg just as the teaching fellow in the business faculty had.

A study carried out in 2020 found the number of questions asked and answered on Chegg had skyrocketed by 196 percent during the university exam period of April-August 2020, compared to the same period the year before.

The suggestion was that universities across the world moving their exams online in response to COVID-19 restrictions had increased the opportunities for students to cheat.

"Given the number of exam-style questions, it appears highly likely that students are using this site as an easy way to breach academic integrity by obtaining outside help," lead author Thomas Lancaster wrote.

Chegg now has an honour code in place to prevent cheating and has invested in a new programme that allows universities to submit questions in advance so they can be blocked during exams.

The university last month said it had only been made aware of one report of cheating, which it was investigating. Tutors were warned during the exam period to be "extra vigilant regarding academic misconduct" in light of the allegations.

In response to further questions from Newshub this week, the university said it encouraged staff, and provided them with support, to design exams suitable for open-book, non-invigilated assessments in light of their decision to host them online this year

It said the majority of exams will be held online for semester two despite recent criticism - a decision that was "supported by senior academic staff across the university and by AUSA".