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