Plans to ban English language dictionaries stall

Debate over dictionaries sheds light on English language provision issues

Tom Kelly
Editor in Chief

The decision to act on the recommendation to prohibit the use of dictionaries in examinations has been placed on hold over concerns regarding the levels of English among Glasgow University’s international students. The Short-life Working Group on Dictionaries in Examinations presented a report on 23 April to the Council of Senate advocating a ban on all use of dictionaries except “in cases where the use of a dictionary is specifically permitted for all students in the examination rubric”.

Following concerns over rising plagiarism and cheating across the university sector, which received national press coverage in April of last year with the University of Glasgow especially noted, a working group was formed to examine the use of English language dictionaries in exams. The University expressed concerns that the dictionaries were being used to conceal notes, a violation of written exam conduct.

Despite the aforementioned report stating that “there was a strong and clear consensus […] that neither translational nor learner dictionaries are beneficial to students in exam situations”, before quoting a number of academic articles to that effect, the report was not ultimately acted on at this time.

The Glasgow Guardian came into possession of an email sent by the Students’ Representative Council (SRC) to members of the Senior Management Group in relation to the proposal and to the provision of English language support from 22 April. In this correspondence the SRC highlight an earlier report by Paul Bishop, one of the members of the Dictionaries Working Group, from the Conduct Committee to Senate in December 2014 which stated “an increase in cases of both plagiarism and exam cheating had been observed in 2013-14 and it was noted that the majority of these cases were EU and international students”. The SRC has used this to link the issues of cheating using dictionaries to English Language provision, saying that despite not having hard evidence, the SRC is of the opinion that “there is a correlation between English language provision and the number of student conduct/plagiarism hearings we see in the Advice Centre”.

The correspondence draws an excerpt from the minutes of the working group’s first meeting, in which Mhairi Taylor of the Equality and Diversity Unit appears to advise that to it wise for the University to improve English language provision before any prohibition on dictionaries is passed. “Ms Taylor advised that the current policy of allowing dictionaries in examinations was a positive action measure, but noted that other positive action measures could be put in place. Removal of the right to use dictionaries in examinations would not constitute a breach of the Equality Act 2010, if there was justification for doing so (such as a threat to academic

standards, or the practicality of permitting their use). The implementation of alternative positive action measures would strengthen the University’s position if it was decided that dictionaries should be prohibited”. The SRC had two representatives on the working group, who claimed that this was typical of a “strong feeling” in the working group that English language provision should be overhauled. The proposal taken forward to the Senate stated “All members agreed that the prohibition of dictionaries should be accompanied by the implementation of additional means of support wherever possible. It was also agreed that alternative support mechanisms should be considered if prohibition was the recommended course of action”.

University staff have indicated that the current English language levels among international students has become an increasingly large challenge, detailed both in communications with the SRC and in University committee meetings.

One email from Jenny Deane, a College Assistant International Student Learning Officer at the College of Social Sciences, to Gintare Masiulyte, the SRC Vice-President of Student Activities, read ‘’It seems that very few of the former GIC [Glasgow International College] students actually get involved in clubs and societies, volunteering opportunities or Freshers’ Week. I think this is partly due to lack of confidence and worries about language”.

Another from Anneli Williams, of the English as a Foreign Language Unit of the Language centre, to Cal Davies, SRC VP Education, confirmed that due to departmental mergers the centre will soon cease to provide their essay checking service, which allows such students to pay to have a native English speaker look at their essay, designed to help non-native English speakers at the university.

These changes are due to be implemented despite a Learning & Teaching Committee meeting in January 2015 where multiple staff members raised concerns over the level of provision in place at that time. Professor Alice Jenkins highlighted that additional support was required for students where English is a secondary language, stating that the “current volume of need outweighed resources”. Jane Weir, Director of Careers Service and Assistant Director of Student Services, expanded on the issue: “the increase of international students, particularly those students experiencing difficulty with the English language, [is] having wider implications and impact on other University Services, including those based at the Dumfries campus”.

SRC President Breffni O’Connor, who was a member of the working group, gave the following statement: “The issue of dictionary use in exams brought up a larger discussion on the level of English language of non-native English speakers at the University of Glasgow. SMG [Senior Management Group] have taken our issues very seriously and are analysing the situation. No student should be disadvantaged on an academic level due to language and the University has a responsibility to assist these students, who would otherwise be disadvantaged, so that dictionaries would not be needed in exams, and also to improve integration within the local community and thus student welfare”.

Furthermore, the SRC implied in their email that they were concerned that cutting English language services would potentially cause international students to withdraw from their studies, negatively impacting the University financially due to the loss of money raised from international students’ fees. They stated: “We feel that because of the large sum of fees that these students pay we may be disadvantaged by cutting services which are vital to their academic improvement while at University of Glasgow”.