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FE at high risk of plagiarism

Less academically experienced students are most vulnerable to charges of misuse, warns HE council

The higher education funding body has warned that FE colleges may be most at risk from students plagiarising work to gain degrees.

In a report on supporting HE in FE colleges, the Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce) said plagiarism was increasingly rife in the internet age, and that the profile of college students made them a particular risk.

With one college overtaking a university in the allocation of HE student funding for the first time, marking a high point for the growth of degree- level study in FE, Hefce said academic skills needed to be made explicit in colleges recruiting students from non-academic backgrounds.

"Misuse of the internet and copying extracts from others' work is a growing problem, but may seem acceptable to many students," it said.

"Evidence suggests that less academically experienced students are most vulnerable to charges of plagiarism; they are less certain about how to handle new subject matter and less confident about expressing their views. These students may also have limited command of essay-writing skills and the conventions attached to quotation."

Colleges should also be aware that overseas students may have different expectations of academic conventions, so they could also be at risk of incorrectly using sources.

The law requires that all students are made aware what is expected of them, so many colleges require students to sign statements confirming they understood the requirements, sometimes for each piece of work.

Mike Harwood, executive director at Bradford College, said it was routine at colleges such as his for training about plagiarism to be part of student induction, so whether students had come from academic courses, vocational ones or as mature students from industry, they would all be aware of the issues.

"We feel that with plagiarism, prevention is much better than cure," he said. "It's made clear to students in their induction and in the documentation, in accessible language. So it doesn't seem right to say they are at greater risk of plagiarism."

Joy Mercer, the Association of Colleges' senior policy manager for HE, said colleges usually had more contact time with students than universities, so they were better equipped to identify work which might not be the student's own.

Hefce said there was debate over the value of showing students a software system that detects plagiarism. Some believe it would help them to use sources correctly, but others were concerned that some would use their knowledge of the system to try to beat it.

Colleges should also examine how they create a higher education ethos, the funding body said, by looking at their marketing, enrolment procedures, staff titles and graduation ceremonies.

University centres at colleges, such as City of Bristol, which provides HE students with their own study and relaxation spaces, were well received, the report said.

The transition of students who may not have studied A-levels or equivalent courses was another area of concern. Most FE students moving on to degree courses were positive about their preparation, but not all. The report said: "HND and foundation degree students, for example, frequently report difficulties with the volume of reading required and the expectation that all students will have well-developed essay-writing skills or be able to cope with a dissertation." Hefce suggested workshops in the first year of courses.

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