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UNIVERSITY UPROAR

Clamour over ‘unfair’ Unisa student suspensions amid cheating charges

Clamour over ‘unfair’ Unisa student suspensions amid cheating charges
University of South Africa students say they are being unfairly suspended over allegations of dishonesty or exam cheating. (Photo: Gallo Images / Thapelo Maphakela)

The leadership of Unisa’s Johannesburg SRC branch says suspensions for cheating and dishonesty are unfair to students and the university management should review its policies.

Students suspended for cheating and dishonesty have cried foul at the embattled University of South Africa (Unisa) over administrative bungles and alleged delays in finalising their hearings.

Four students, who asked not to be named for fear of reprisals, wrote to Daily Maverick accusing Unisa of treating them unfairly following their suspensions.

This comes after Unisa’s regional Student Representative Council (SRC) branch in Johannesburg issued a memo to the university’s management last week raising “deep concerns” about disciplinary processes.

Unisa claimed on Tuesday that the memo had not been received. 

“However, we take note of the statement issued by the Johannesburg SRC and the contents thereof. The university will engage with the relevant student leadership structures on the issues that have been raised, using existing engagement protocols for management and student leadership structures,” Unisa said in a statement.

The SRC memo

According to the undated memo, which Daily Maverick shared with Unisa, the Johannesburg SRC branch is concerned about the increasing number of student suspensions due to disciplinary actions.

“We strongly oppose this trend as it infringes upon student rights to education,” the memo reads.

The memo states that imposing “harsh suspension” for long periods not only hinders academic progress but also impedes students’ personal development.

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The memo says it is crucial to advocate for a more equitable disciplinary code.

“Rather than relying solely on punitive measures, we should incorporate clauses that emphasise remediation and support for students to learn from their mistakes.”

The disciplinary code, the memo states, should prioritise constructive approaches that foster growth over strict punitive measures.

‘Restorative justice’

The memo says consideration should be given to integrating restorative justice principles, mentorship programmes and educational support within the disciplinary framework.

This shift would emphasise a more rehabilitative stance, acknowledging that students can benefit from guidance and assistance in overcoming challenges.

“The university administration should reflect on these nuanced perspectives to ensure a fair and balanced disciplinary process that not only upholds academic standards but also facilitates the personal development of every student,” the memo reads.

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The SRC branch called for an immediate halt to disciplinary hearings scheduled during the current exam period.

“This practice poses a significant challenge for students, as it compromises their ability to concentrate on exams while concurrently attending disciplinary proceedings.”

Additionally, the memo states that the branch advocates for a comprehensive review of all disciplinary hearings conducted this semester, particularly cases that have been pending for more than a year.

“Such prolonged delays impede students’ academic progress, potentially affecting their graduation and other associated matters.”

Students’ accounts

One student, who is studying law, said Unisa has gone against its disciplinary code and is suspending students for about two years over allegations of plagiarism and cheating.

Since the start of October 2023, she said, Unisa had suspended affected students during online hearings on Microsoft Teams.

“This is happening in the law faculty. Students have made Facebook posts saying they are suicidal as they are poor and cannot afford to stay home for two years,” she said.

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Unisa, she said, relied on software called Turnitin to check for similarities between students’ answers and other published work.

For online exams, she said, Unisa used an invigilator app to highlight similarities between students.

“Law students who have been suspended by the university have been rejected by the Legal Practice Council when applying to register articles to become candidate attorneys.”

When law students apply to be admitted as an attorney, she said, this suspension had to be declared and would make it difficult for the person to be admitted as an attorney due to requirements for a candidate to be a “fit and proper” person. 

‘Forfeited fees, cancelled modules’

A second student said there were about 4,000 students whose disciplinary hearings were pending. 

“What stressed me out is that while having disciplinaries pending, they advise you to register for another semester and to re-register the module for which you received disciplinary action. Once you register, you have to pay your fees. As for me, I’m not a National Student Financial Aid Scheme beneficiary,” she said.

Her parents, she added, were paying her fees.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Staffer in Unisa VC’s office linked to laptop tender scandal still demanding that the university cough up

In a semester, she said, a student could pay about R12,000 depending on the number of modules being studied.

“So once you register and pay while waiting for the disciplinary committee to call you, you will be able to do your assignments and even write exams. While waiting for your exam results, the disciplinary committee can decide to suspend you for about two to five years. Immediately once they suspend you, your fees will be forfeited and the modules you wrote will be cancelled regardless of whether or not you passed.

“I have depression and suicidal thoughts because of disciplinary action that is pending. No one in Unisa is willing to listen to our crisis. You will send them hundreds of emails but still not get a response. They are making money using this strategy of disciplinaries pending,” she said.

‘Systemic inefficiencies’

A third student said the disciplinary cases were unfair administrative acts.

“Students are being flagged for academic dishonesty but are not given a fair chance to plead their case,” he said.

In some instances, he said, innocent students had fallen victim to the system’s inefficiency. 

“Unisa always resorts to suspending students, which is contrary to their policy that says students who are first-time offenders should receive warning letters.”

“When we raise the matter with the Unisa lecturers and other committees, we are reprimanded for insubordination.”

A fourth student said she was suspended pending her results for a law module.

“I find it very disturbing and unfair after all the sleepless nights and stress of preparing for the exam,” she said. 

Unisa responds

Unisa said students and other stakeholders should be reminded that the university’s examination rules were in place to ensure the integrity of assessment processes and qualifications. 

During every exam period, according to Unisa, students are reminded of the importance of adhering to examination rules and the consequences if a student is caught violating these rules.

“In such instances, the university is obligated to invoke the student disciplinary code, which it applies without fear or favour, but also fairly and consistently. Both the university and the students have an obligation to protect and uphold the integrity of Unisa qualifications by ensuring adherence to the rules.”

Unisa said it must be emphasised that a pending disciplinary hearing did not block a student from registering. 

“The only students blocked on the system are those who have already gone through a formal disciplinary and have been sanctioned.”

A total of 1,541 students have been suspended. These students, Unisa said, had been suspended for violation of examination rules. 

“The acts of misconduct include plagiarism, contract cheating and non-compliance with the proctoring rules,” Unisa wrote.

Unisa said in terms of Chapter 7(3) of the student disciplinary code, a “student who is temporarily or permanently deprived in terms of the code of the opportunity which he/she has as a student or is temporarily or permanently denied admission to the University, forfeits any claim for repayment, reduction or remission of monies paid or payable to the university”.

Unisa said affected students have recourse to appeal against their suspensions. Currently, Unisa said the university was processing such appeals.

“Many of them have already been concluded and it aims to conclude the remaining ones as speedily as possible.”

In terms of the student disciplinary code, Unisa said suspension or any other sanction could be overturned on appeal.

“Until and unless the suspension decision or any other sanction is overturned on appeal, that sanction remains in force.” DM

Gallery

Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Angela Lambson says:

    Hi Msindisi, not sure how to reach you directly but wonder if you’re the member of the DM team keeping an eye on today’s NSFAS application deadline? Any idea on process times? Likely outcomes? Got a young friend (a top Alex learner) who applied on 2 Dec and her NSFAS account shows her case is still to be evaluated .. must be tens (hundreds?) of thousands in the same uncertain situation and would be helpful if they’d publish some indication of likely outcomes/timelines. Appreciate DM’s input here. Thanks for all you do.

  • Ben Harper says:

    1,541 suspended, and that’s just the ones they actually caught

  • Jeff Robinson says:

    From my own academic experience, I am certain there has been an increase in tolerance and even sympathy for plagiarism. This ultimately is not in the interest of present and future students. My understanding is that rules setting down what qualifies as plagiarism are made clear to students and they must ensure that they abide by them. The sad thing is that it can be easily avoided. One is entitled to use verbatim the words of others (just check my Phd) but there MUST be clear acknowledgement that one is doing so (i.e. proper citation).

    • jason du toit says:

      a plagiarism score of 15% or lower (from something like turnitin) is the generally accepted norm depending on the course, but single-digit percentages should be what authors should be targeting. things like contents pages, reference sections, and addendums (i refuse to use addenda) push the percentage higher, while longer sections of the student’s own work obviously push it lower.

      sections quoting others (which should be referenced) will also push the percentage higher and is the first place that (honest) students look at to lower the percentage. any self-respecting learning institution has the facility to put one’s own submission as a draft through the system to get a score before they hand it in, so as to rework it as necessary.

      • Laetitia Kennedy says:

        I found that when I did my doctorate at UNISA, it was up to me to reduce the plagiarism percentage to as low as possible – aiming for nothing more than 2 – 3%. The Turnitin page for the final version of my dissertation was also submitted with the examination copy. It is up to each and every student to make sure that they paraphrase correctly, use quotes where appropriate and always give credit where it is due. These requirements are non-negotiable, and any self-respecting student/researcher ought to adhere to them.

  • Confused Citizen says:

    So after 12 years of schooling you reach university and you still don’t know what academic cheating is and that it is wrong? Now you want multiple chances to learn (grow) how not to cheat? Unisa provides stacks of info to students on what cheating and plagiarism is. If they can’t read and comprehend that, maybe they are not university material.

  • Jane Crankshaw says:

    I shake my head! When will we wakeup and stop being so Woke! Cheating is wrong, lying is wrong, stealing is wrong, plagiarism is wrong…. Just because some SA politicians do it snd get away with it, does not make any of these things right!

  • I am of the opinion that if restorative justice is an approach for individuals entering the legal field that this will be the downfall of the legal profession in South Africa entirely. To become an admitted attorney besides the necessary education, it is a requirement to be a fit and proper person who possesses integrity and good ethical practices to fully best present the interests of your clients. Students that commit cheating practices while studying LLB Law is a clear indication that they have their own best interests at heart and cannot serve the interests of our communities in an ethical manner. Implementing restorative justice for these individuals would open the flood gates for increased corruption and ill practices.

  • Angry Student says:

    I want to clarify that simply citing your sources does not protect you from the possibility of suspension. The current situation is different from before, and online exams have stricter rules. Even if you reference correctly, verbatim answers may still be considered cheating. It is unfair that we are expected to use the same study guides and sources, yet some students are punished while others are not. As a student who has been suspended for following all referencing requirements, I can attest that this can happen even if you have never met or know the other student whose work may be similar to yours.

  • Tony W says:

    Cheat, and the whine about how unfair it is to be caught !
    Guess they followed the ANC example so thought it must be OK.

  • Pieter van de Venter says:

    These 20something year old heard of Apartheid/Colonialism/Slavery and are therefore scarred for life. Due to the inhumane scarring, they are entitled to everything they want and if they do get it, they will use any and (including the SRC – local EFF branch) to force management to change even if it is via boxes of matches.

    Serious??? These entitled 30percenters desrve every sanction they can get. Thirty tears after the 1948 election, I paid for ALL my studies at Unisa myself while serving as a permanent member of the defence force. There was no government grants and given marks to pass and so on. Either you earned your marks and paid your dues, or remained what the colonial English made Afrikaans speakers to be – to dumb to go to university.

    • Angry Student says:

      You assert that “twenty-something students” are scarred by their knowledge of colonialism, apartheid, and slavery. You are speaking of students of color, because it is impossible that you mean white students. I have news for you: there are plenty of white students who have been suspended from the faculties of law, accounting, and psychology. Who cares if you paid for your own studies. We pay for our own studies too. Do you think that all students of color receive their education for free? You should let go of your bitterness and racism. Yes, these fifty-somethings are bitter and still long for the old days. Your entire comment is steeped in racism. I do not understand how you think that is acceptable.

  • Les Thorpe says:

    Can only happen in South Africa where the unions control most of the workplace and run the economy, and the student representative councils dictate how the universities should be run.

  • Tony Fletcher says:

    I would want an attorney that passed his/her degrees honestly and properly attending to any legal matters I might have, I’m sure they are all expecting government jobs.

  • Interesting article.
    How is plagiarism determined when it involves a calculation that is based on a same question?

    Flagged scripts are flagged due to same formatting, same mistake and etc, is this really plagiarism? The format of the income statement is always the same. My argument is 2+2=4, UNISA cant say to students which first 2 was used in the calculation.

  • Fanie Rajesh Ngabiso says:

    Look no further than the article photo for the truth of the state of our country and its institutions.

  • Confused Citizen says:

    Please give the lecturers some credit. They have to gather and present extensive evidence in the disciplinary hearings. Generic phrases are excluded.
    2 + 2 = 4 are not flagged
    2 + 2 = 37,268 is flagged when 10 students get this answer.
    Students buy suggested solutions that are worked out by ‘businesses’ on the day of the exam. Suggested answers are sent via WhatsApp to the student section per section that they write out in their own handwriting. Etc etc.

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