Contract cheating refers to students outsourcing their assessments to professional cheating services or through arrangements with friends or peers. A typical example would be a student paying for an essay which is then submitted as their own work.
As classroom time has been successively cut down, teaching staff have fewer opportunities to get to know their students’ abilities. Some courses have been moved fully online, resulting in no face-to-face time with a tutor. This shift away from class time makes it difficult for teaching staff to identify where a student may need additional support and determine if an assignment is a student’s own work. The lack of individual attention given to university students makes it easy for cheating behaviours to proliferate undetected. Many universities use plagiarism detection software, but by its nature this cannot pick up custom essays that students have purchased.
The majority of students do not cheat. Seeing peers effectively purchase a higher grade is frustrating and unfair. Students are also concerned about the impact of a cheating culture on the value of their education. If cheating goes undetected or unpunished, but is widely known about, it is a threat to the reputation of degree programs and even entire universities.
Students who are caught cheating or assisting others to cheat can be penalised through internal university policies. However, universities have no authority to address professional cheating services. Consequently, these services can blatantly advertise to the student community. The chief executive of the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency, Anthony McClaran, spoke about this at the agency’s conference last year. Contract cheating companies had boldly affixed poster advertisements outside the agency’s office. Ironically, the agency was unable to do anything about the contract cheating company because there are currently no regulations in this space.
A proposal by the Higher Education Standards Panel seeks to bring this situation under control by making the provision or advertisement of contract cheating services an offence. This would not criminalise students for purchasing cheating services – any identified cases of students cheating would continue to be dealt with through university policies. The legislation is intended to target professional outfits rather than individual students. If implemented, this legislation will be an important step in promoting academic integrity in Australian universities.
However, more action is needed in order to reduce cheating at universities. Most instances of cheating do not involve the exchange of money and so will not be impacted by the legislation. A study on contract cheating from the University of South Australia investigated factors that correlate to higher cheating rates. The researchers found that dissatisfaction with the teaching environment and perceptions of there being many opportunities to cheat were both implicated in cheating behaviours.
Legislation will help reduce perceptions of opportunities to cheat. Other measures are needed to increase student satisfaction with the teaching environment. Successive cost cutting in universities has eroded the support available to students and has consequences for academic integrity.
If students feel like they are receiving a high-quality education and adequate support, they will be more motivated to engage with their coursework and complete their assignments without resorting to cheating. Classroom time is a necessity for students to have discussions and engage with their course material. Drop-in office hours among teaching staff provide an opportunity for students to seek one-on-one help. Academic support services, particularly for international students, provide that extra guidance some students need to complete university-level assessments. These are basic components to a university education that, at many institutions, have been the victim of cost-cutting measures.
Another crucial aspect is the existence of independent student advocacy services. Advocacy is a necessary part of the university infrastructure but many universities do not provide funding for student associations to run independent advocacy services, meaning that entire student populations miss out. When students are in difficult situations, such as being caught cheating, a student advocacy service can assist the student to navigate university policies and procedures, ensure that they are being treated fairly, and connect them to academic support and other relevant services.
Student advocacy services can also assist universities with prevention. As student advocacy officers are on the frontline of handling academic misconduct cases, they gain an understanding of how and why students cheat, and implement prevention efforts. For example, at Monash University, the Monash Postgraduate Association’s advocacy arm designed a program to reduce exam cheating.
They identified the subjects in which cheating was more common. At the first lecture of each of these subjects, they delivered a presentation on types of academic misconduct and its consequences, and encouraged students to seek academic help early. The number of academic misconduct cases from the targeted subjects was then seen to reduce.
A production-line university with underfunded services is fertile ground for cheating behaviours. Universities must invest in delivering a high-quality education, which includes academic support and fully funded advocacy services, in order to promote academic integrity and diminish cheating among students.
Natasha Abrahams is the national president of the Council of Australian Postgraduate Associations, the peak representative body for postgraduate students.Do you have an idea for a story?
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