How an exam fraud case turned a UT student's life upside down

| Rense Kuipers

A UT Mechanical Engineering student used ChatGPT for an essay last year. He ended up in a complex and protracted case with the examination board. The matter is now going to the Council of State. U-Today wrote the following reconstruction about how it could get so out of hand, based on dozens of sources.

Photo by: enith vlooswijk

It is 9 May 2023, when the coordinator of Mechanical Engineering module 11 sends an e-mail to the examination board of the programme. At the time, he suspects three students of fraud in an essay for the course Systems Engineering. The module coordinator bases this on a so-called similarity report from anti-plagiarism software Turnitin.

One of the suspected students is the Iranian Shervin Tochahi. For his essay, the fraud detection software finds a 17 percent similarity with other submitted works. In addition, the software finds a 15 percent chance that Tochahi used artificial intelligence to write his essay. It is enough cause for the module coordinator to report to the examination board.


That board holds a hearing with the student on 26 May. During that hearing, Tochahi denies having used the work of others in writing his essay. He only asked a fellow student friend - who had already completed the course - to proofread his essay and give tips. According to the student, that only amounted to a few remarks, which he then incorporated into the text himself.

'I see ChatGPT as not much different from a tool like Grammarly'

And the use of artificial intelligence? Tochahi openly admits to using ChatGPT. But, he claims towards the exam board - and six months later, upon asked, also to U-Today: he did not let the chatbot write his essay. 'Partly because of my ADHD, I have trouble with writing,' says Tochahi. 'I see ChatGPT as not much different from a tool like Grammarly, so I asked it to improve my text in terms of grammar and academic writing. I only used ChatGPT to support the text I had already written, not to generate text.'

In Tochahi's experience, such an application of artificial intelligence was also allowed. The lecturer of the subject, Professor Maarten Bonnema, confirmed this to the exam board by email the same day. According to Bonnema, it was allowed to ask ChatGPT questions so that students could develop ideas as a result. But they were not allowed to submit an AI-created text.


Just under two months later, on 17 July, the student receives by e-mail the verdict of the examination board. Which concludes, based on the evidence provided and the hearing, that Tochahi committed fraud by using text in his essay that was directly generated by AI – without reference. And because Tochahi had already been convicted of fraud before, the exam board imposes the following sanction on him: the essay is declared invalid with a 1 as a mark, he is not given an opportunity to retake it in the same academic year, and a note of the conviction is added to his student file.

The examination board thus sees it as recidivism on Tochahi's part and weighs it in its verdict. The fact of the matter is that Tochahi received a warning for plagiarism in October 2019. Moreover, in March 2021, he was convicted of exam fraud in a written exam of the course Processing & Properties of Polymers. That was a deserved conviction, the student tells U-Today. 'That was a time when I was struggling with private issues and the passing of relatives. I made a wrong decision by cheating during an exam. There is nothing that justified that behaviour. I even offered my lecturer to withdraw my exam.' Tochahi, guilt-ridden, was ready to accept the examination board's sanction. That sanction came, but was never communicated to the student.

Military service

That this earlier conviction is a defining factor in the new fraud issue, bothers Tochahi. He appeals the decision on 4 August, to the UT-wide Board of Appeal for Examinations (CBE), which informs Tochahi that he must first meet again with the examination board for a mediation session.

By this time, Tochahi begins to fear study delays and additional financial consequences. His parents are willing to support him financially until November 2023, he claims. According to the exam board's ruling, he would not be allowed to resubmit the essay for the Systems Engineering course until spring 2024. 'So in theory, I could deregister from my studies and re-register by then,' Tochahi reflects. 'But in that case, my visa would be discontinued and I would have to return to Iran, where I would have to spend two years in military service before I would be allowed to leave the country again.

The mediation meeting between the student and the examination board takes place on 12 September. At that point, Tochahi has almost completed his bachelor's degree. He only has to pass the courses Systems Engineering (from the essay in question) and Dynamics 1 and complete his bachelor's assignment. The examination board does not alter its verdict. It sticks to its earlier decision and sees 'a pattern in which a student repeatedly makes the wrong choices'. However, the committee does budge somewhat; by way of exception, Tochahi is allowed to start his bachelor's assignment earlier in order to limit his study delay.


However, the student does not leave it at that and resorts to a legal expert of law firm Van Vliet before the hearing at the Board of Appeal for Examinations. This takes place on 18 October. Tochahi and his legal expert's defence: the anti-plagiarism software even marked the cover page of his essay as plagiarism, but that only contains standardised information. In addition, the nature of the assignment - effectively a brief review of the project - may lead to similarities between submissions. Again, the student claims to have never used ChatGPT to create content. And Tochahi does not feel that the earlier sanction - which was never communicated to him in writing - should not factor into this decision; he cannot be held responsible for an earlier procedural error on the part of the examination board.

The exam board's defence: the software detected a 17 percent match with other work and recognised 15 percent of the text as generated by AI. And handing in something like that as your own work is not allowed in this assignment. Moreover, references indicating the use of AI were missing - and that is considered fraud under the UT's student statute, according to the examination board. And: the sanction came about 'taking into account a previous case of fraud'.

Verdict and slap on the wrist

On 6 November, the CBE's ruling follows. It declares the student's appeal grounded and criticises the examination board. According to the CBE, the board 'adopted the software's plagiarism results in full', whereas it should have investigated the original sources. The CBE also blames the examination board for the procedural error of the earlier fraud case. Because Tochahi had never received the sanction, he was also never formally given the opportunity to appeal against it. Moreover, because of that procedural error, that earlier case should never have been taken into account when determining the penalty for this fraud case. The CBE's verdict: the examination committee's decision 'was made on incorrect grounds and therefore cannot be upheld'.

The CBE reprimands the examination board on several counts. It must reimburse the legal assistance fees of 1194 euros. And, the CBE observes: 'the procedure followed and further course of events of the examination board regarding this appeal case have been diffuse'. The CBE therefore recommends that the examination board improve the course of events surrounding appeal proceedings.

'I am convinced that their sanctions are justified in the vast majority of cases. But your procedures need to be in order'

'Protecting the 1 percent'

Tochahi has since successfully completed both the Dynamics 1 course and his undergraduate assignment. The only thing left before he can receive his bachelor's diploma: the 1.5 EC linked to the essay for the course in Systems Engineering. The case is a book he would rather slam than close. 'The effects on your mental health, the stress... I think the exam board has no idea what their decision did to me, what was hanging over my head for months.'

Like the CBE, the student has some grievances about the procedure followed by the examination board. 'It was only during the first hearing that I was told exactly what I was accused of. I was caught off guard and had no chance to prepare a proper defence. After all, I did not know exactly what I was accused of, because I didn't receive the similarity report upfront.' He hopes the examination board will improve its procedures. 'I am convinced that their sanctions are justified in the vast majority of cases. But your procedures need to be in order, to protect the 1 percent of cases where things go wrong.'

Case not closed

But the case is not closed yet. Tochahi shares his story mid-November, expecting the CBE ruling to be the prelude to a quick settlement of the case – and thus the completion of his bachelor's degree. But the examination board comes up with a new decision on 24 November. This time, the exam board thoroughly examined Tochahi's essay for possible plagiarism and found that the essay was very similar to Student X's essay in nineteen sections. Fraud, says the board, which declares the essay invalid and allows Tochahi to resit the assignment in February 2024 – at the start of a new quartile.

After consultation with his legal expert, the student appeals against the ruling. And on December 6, Tochahi asks for a so-called preliminary injunction, so that he can immediately resit the assignment. That happened after he sought advice from the UT's ombuds officer. The examination board honours the request less than a week later, after consultation with the secretary of the CBE; Tochahi is allowed to resit the assignment – 'under the same conditions, with regards to generative AI'. And his teacher can assess the result. But, according to the Board of Examiners, the teacher will only register the grade after Tochahi's appeal against the decision of November 24 has been completed.

Legal jousting

A mediation meeting between the student and the Board of Examiners just before the Christmas holidays does not lead to a solution. This creates two tracks in the case: once again, the student faces the examination board at a hearing of the CBE. But in the meantime, he is allowed to resit the assignment for the Systems Engineering course.

In the run-up to that hearing, a legal joust takes place. The notice of appeal drafted by Tochahi's legal expert argues that the decision of the examination board violates four legal principles, including that the student cannot stand trial twice for the same offense and thus be punished twice – the so-called ne-bis-in-idem principle. On 22 January, the Board of Examiners' statement of defence, drawn up by law firm KienhuisHoving, follows. A remarkable development; only the student had hired legal assistance prior to this. In response to the statement of defence, he comes up with nine pages of 'additional grounds'. The CBE hearing takes place on 5 February, almost nine months after the anti-plagiarism software sounds the alarm. Once again, the exam board and the student are diametrically opposed, with the CBE again as the judge in this appeal.

New case

The verdict follows on 29 February. The CBE now rules in favour of the examination board and declares the student's appeal unfounded. Why is that statement so different from that of November, when the student did not draw the proverbial short straw? Succinctly explained, the CBE annulled that earlier decision, so – 'from a legal point of view' – that decision never existed for this new case.

However, the student speaks of a 'double conviction' and finds the decision of the examination board 'disproportionate'. Because even though he could count on some leniency from the same examination board to limit his study delay, he had to deal with the consequences of that first decision, of 17 July, for months. The exam board now does not cite the earlier exam fraud as additional argumentation, but the plagiarism warning that Tochahi already received in October 2019. That combined with the similarities of Tochahi's essay with that of Student X. The student maintains – also in an explanation to U-Today – that the nineteen sections that correspond to Student X's work were 'simply a general description of the course and the activities'.

However, the CBE rules that the fraud found is 'undisputed' and states that 'the sanction imposed has remained within the boundaries of the existing sanction ladder'. The CBE also states that the consequences for the student were ultimately limited, because he was allowed to resit the assignment and complete other courses at an early stage. And: 'For the sake of completeness, the Board notes that, in its opinion, taking decisive action against academic fraud not only falls within the competence of the examination board, but is even one of the main tasks of the examination board'.

'It's like I've been caught driving without my seatbelt on, but I've been convicted of drunk driving'

Council of State

Even before the February 5 CBE hearing, Tochahi completes his resit for Systems Engineering. After the decision of the CBE, his grade is released and registered – a passing grade. Nothing stands in the way of him receiving his diploma in April, in the presence of his parents. But it's not that he and his legal expert are going to leave it at that. They lodge an objection with the Council of State (Raad van State, ed.) – formerly the Higher Education Appeals Board.

Because, Tochahi explains to U-Today in mid-March: 'I am convinced that I have been punished twice – and too severely. It's like I've been caught driving without my seatbelt on, but I've been convicted of drunk driving. It feels unfair.' So the student goes to the Council of State. 'The study delay cost me more than four thousand euros, I had a job offer that I couldn't accept. I've gotten over my anger, but if they can't let go, I won't let go. I could be wrong, but I feel wronged.'

How this article was produce​​d

  • U-Today reconstructed this case based on dozens of sources: emails, documents, rulings, and correspondence between the parties involved.
  • The student discussed his side of the story with an editor twice, on November 14 and March 12.
  • U-Today contacted the Board of Examiners and the Examination Appeals Board for further clarification and rebuttal.
  • Both bodies did not accede to that request.
  • The Board of Examiners responded as follows: 'The ME&SET Examination Board may/can not give statements on individual cases. I hope you will understand that.’
  • The Examination Appeals Board says the following: 'There will be no response from our side.'

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