STUDENTS facing disciplinary hearings on suspicion of plagiarism have started to hire solicitors to avoid being thrown out of college, a leading academic has said.

According to Michael Laffan, associate professor of history in UCD, students who are caught writing essays with information gleaned from websites such as Wikipedia are increasingly arming themselves with legal experts which often results in college authorities letting them off.

"We need to penalise the students who are directly ripping off sometimes whole essays, copying and pasting directly from the internet and not even bothering to change the font so that it is blatantly obvious.

"But then they bring in lawyers and legal aid. The lawyers pick for every little angle to get them off the hook. The college authorities backtrack, and also don't want to lose the future fees of the students as the financial crisis worsens and so the students inevitably get let off."

Laffan says he has already had to expel one masters student after he handed in an assessment which was a direct copy of another student's essay.

There is now widespread unrest among academics and employers that falling standards are not being tackled by college authorities struggling with financial deficits.

"The college does not want to lose the future fees for these students so all of a sudden we are going so much easier on offences like this. It is my impression they need the money more than anything else," says Laffan.

Another senior academic said: "there has been a significant reduction in standards over the last few years and it is a grave concern."

Laffan said he is now cracking down on grade inflation, the practice of grading students easier despite offences such as plagiarism.

"This is an issue which academics are becoming increasingly worried about. The number of firsts given out now are vastly bigger than the amount we would have 20 years ago. It is clear that we are very, very generous with our marking. Students can, in some courses, get up to 10% of their overall grade for just turning up. "