When the assessment system fails the student 9

I believe most of us know of instances where lecturers or other staff members of learning institutions actually collaborate with students to cheat in examinations. This also happens after the examinations, for example where assessors are instructed by their superiors to inflate the examination results so that the learning institution will not look bad. Any such practice is a disservice to the students because ultimately students are required to perform jobs for which their studies were supposed to prepare them. This happens on all levels of learning, from school level up to PhD, and I would like to air my views on one such instance where the entire assessment system failed the student. This happened in Germany and I was there when the bomb exploded (February 2011). Back then I was not in a position to speak out, because as a South African you dare not criticize Europeans. I believe I waited long enough for the dust to settle, so now it is my turn to speak; or write if you like.


Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, at the time Minister of Defence, was accused of committing plagiarism in his PhD thesis. The Berlin Tageszeitung nicknamed him “Zu Googleberg” and the Financial Times Deutschland nicknamed him “Baron Cut-and-Paste” (yes, he really is a Baron). The evidence against him was irrefutable and not only was his PhD renounced – he was also forced to resign his post as Minister of Defence. His personal life also suffered.


I was a speaker at an international conference on quality assurance in education at the time and to my surprise nobody even mentioned the case. Perhaps this was because there were delegates from 21 different countries and we know that it is very difficult for Germans to admit mistakes. Point is, what about the University of Bayreuth, the university where Baron zu Guttenberg studied? A study leader is supposed to not only assess the student’s product, but also to provide the student with guidance and support. If Baron zu Guttenberg’s study leader did his work he must have seen that there were sections in his thesis that might have been somebody else’s work for which he did not give recognition. Afterwards a professor from a different university identified such instances as did the media once they saw that this could be a really sensational story. Why did Baron zu Guttenberg’s study leader allow him to submit if his thesis was not ready yet? Why did he not warn the student that there might have been problems with his referencing system? Surely a study leader must know how to identify such possibilities in a thesis? And why did three external examiners do the same? Where was the Convenor who was supposed to scrutinise and consolidate the recommendations of the examiners and study leader? Baron zu Guttenberg did not fabricate any information – he just omitted giving recognition to his sources. And if his thesis was accepted by three examiners then surely his findings and recommendations must have been acceptable. If the study leader did his work he could have saved the university immense embarrassment and Baron zu Guttenberg his PhD, career and personal life. I feel that the wrong person has been punished.


In closing, Baron zu Guttenberg probably did more for quality assurance in higher education than even the international conference that I attended did. Baron zu Guttenberg brought the risks of using Internet documents as sources of information to the attention of virtually all higher education institutions in the world. Most universities changed their verification systems to include checking by means of dedicated software that can pick up cases of plagiarism after this incident. Secondly Baron zu Guttenberg actually demonstrated what a powerful source of information the Internet can be. Thirdly, he showed how important quality assurance in education is. Fourthly, he pointed out the need for a shift in our approach to research, especially the need for corroboration of information through methods such as triangulation.

Dr Hannes Nel, MD Mentornet   

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About Hannes Nel

CEO and owner of Mentornet (Pty) Ltd. Academic background: B. Mil.; BA Honnours; MBL; D. Com; D. Phil Published 10 books with two more in the pipeline.

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9 thoughts on “When the assessment system fails the student

  • Tebogo Boroto

    Earlier this year I called out for help when I needed a way to get a statement of results from the dept of edu. One member of the forum suggested I go to the dept although he did not say where. So I enquired some more until Iwas pointed in the direction of 222 Struben Street, Pretoria. I took that route armed with my green barcoded ID book and all it took was to be pointed to the right queue and after a few minutes I came out with my long lost statement of results.

    Sylvia asked me to report back to the forum once I am done and I am pleased to report back to the forum that I went well; all thanks to the members. Let’s keep on helping one another and soon this beautiful country of ours will be the envy and model of the rest of the world.


  • Des Squire

    Great Stuff Hannes – to the point as usual.

    Sometime I wonder if the need for providers to achieve success of say 90% as set out in some SETA tenders doesn’t add to the problem? No success – no payment. Since we have a system in place where a candidate can be assessed as Not Yet Competent I really seee no point in cheating the system. this is such a great opportunity to really help the candidate and ensure learning.  

  • Tebogo Boroto

    This is compelling info and we need to embrace such enlightenment as a nation so that we may become better people. There was a Sheiking story here in the country that had the same connotations but I also did not hear the end of it, maybe it was because I was really attracted to the story as I was not this enlightened.

    But there is another angle of disservice to the students that happened in the past and I have a sneaky suspicion that it might still be happening today. In the past if students in a particular faculty or discipline were passing in droves, they were purposely failed so that they did not get oversubscriped. In fact at some institution a quota sysstem was placed to that by a given year so many students should roll off at the end of the conveyor belt as graduates.

    If this is still going on then this is also a great disservice to the youth we so wish to see skilled and developed and abled.

  • Sonja Broschk

    Plagiarism is being committed all over the place.  But the problem – as so succinctly put – lies firstly, within the institution.  Change the approach of the institution to punish any person who commits plagiarism – at an early stage in their academic career (first year level – as a lot of plagiarism is committed at this level) and you are more prone to weed it out at a later stage (by giving a mark of 0% the student will soon learn to change his/her approach).  However, easier said than done – students seem to think that the Internet (reason Nr 2) is there for everyone to use, is free and therefore, not applicable to the laws of plagiarism.  Internet pages also need a programme that ensures that the author or acknowledgment is clearer set out.  Students do not find a name on the site and therefore believe it does not need to be referenced.  Reason nr 3 is the ease of access to information.  The easier it is to find information the lless inclined the student is to think of plagiarism and referencing.  And besides, what are he schools doing about this? A huge debate and an immensely intresting topic.

  • Marie Smith

    Christo, programme development does indeed need proper design in terms of developing the assessments according to the requirements of the unit standards and the exit level outcomes in the case of full qualifications. It is important for developers to make sure they fully understand what is required in terms of assessment.

  • Christo Prinsloo

    Hannes I need to agree with you as assessment is an issue that links to quality and to standards. I would like to just add another link to it “Programme development” as it is supposed tp pave the way to what would be assessed and not only programme information. We see this missing all the time. Thanks for your article.

  • James Chapman

    Dr Hannes, I couldn’t agree with you more.  People underestimate the role that an Assessor plays.  My one colleague painted a picture of an Assessor being like a lighthouse.  You are to guide your learners as if they are ships that are sailing through a rocky ocean and you are to shed some light on the rocks (such as plagiarism, unsatisfactory standards of delivery, insufficient knowledge regarding the subject matter, etc.) that may undermine their learning and “sink” them so to speak.

    Assessment is not simply a process by which we sign off learners left, right and centre.  Assessment is an extention of the learning experience – making sure that the person is indeed competent (Competent meaning that the person can function on his/her own in the workplace without any help received from another and according to the standards to which he/she should be functioning).  I think people underestimate the important role that Assessors play – such as being ETHICAL during the process.

    My confidence in a university such as the one that Baron zu Guttenberg attended will be shattered after such an episode – as you rightly said:  how was it possible that NO ONE who was involved in assessing, moderating and awarding the PhD to Baron zu Guttenberg picked up the plagiarism?  Surely the university should be held liable as well.  The Student Leader involved is not a Leader at all, according to me.

  • Marie Smith

    Very interesting and valid points you are making, Dr Hannes. I often wonder how Training Providers who buy cheap off-the-shelf training material, sometimes with vast parts copied from the Internet without referencing the sources (as they themselves realise), will respond if the plagiarism is picked up and their companies are accused of plagiarism.