Students take their seats for the diploma ceremony at the John F Kennedy School of Government during the 361st Commencement Exercises at Harvard University in Cambridge.

New York -

As many as 125 students at Harvard University are being probed for allegedly cheating in a final exam at the elite institution, administrators said on Thursday.

The official university site reported that a large number of undergraduates “may have inappropriately collaborated on answers, or plagiarised classmates' responses, on the final exam for the course.”

An initial investigation by the Harvard College Administration Board of more than 250 final exams resulted in cases of alleged cheating involving “nearly half the students in the class.”

Neither the course, nor the students were identified in the scandal, which would be one of the biggest at the Ivy League college.

According to the account, the allegations arose when a faculty member noticed “similarities between a number of exams.” Anyone found to have cheated could face punishments including a one-year suspension from the college.

Michael Smith, dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, said it was important to act.

“We take academic integrity very seriously because it goes to the heart of our educational mission,” he said in a statement. “Academic dishonesty cannot and will not be tolerated at Harvard.”

“These allegations, if proven, represent totally unacceptable behaviour that betrays the trust upon which intellectual inquiry at Harvard depends,” Harvard University President Drew Faust said.

“We must deal with this fairly and through a deliberative process.”

Harvard, a college in Cambridge, Massachusetts, near Boston, is one of the most exclusive universities in the world, with students paying about $63 000 (50 000 euros) per year to attend.

Harvard said the cheating allegations were limited to one class, but that the incident had already prompted reforms.

The College Committee on Academic Integrity is to present “recommendations to reinforce the faculty's expectations of academic honesty,” the Harvard news website said.

These could include “new ethics policies,” possibly an “honour code” and consultations with outside experts, as well as discussions within student residencies. - Sapa-AFP