Home | Policy & Reform | Who’s cheating at uni, and what are we going to do about it?

Who’s cheating at uni, and what are we going to do about it?

During your entire career as a student, did you ever cheat on an assignment, an essay or in an exam? Did you ever share your science results with a classmate, ask a friend or family member to proofread your essay, or, under the pressure of a deadline or extenuating family circumstances, cut a corner that you knew was “breaking the rules”?

At a recent TEQSA-sponsored seminar on “Academic Integrity in Australian Higher Education,” UniSA expert Professor Tracey Bretag made the point that, under the right (or rather wrong) circumstances, just about everyone can become a cheat. To help gain insights into the exact question, we recently commissioned a research project that surveyed over 1,000 Australian university and TAFE students. The study found that 7.5 per cent of students admit that they have cheated.

At one level that number doesn’t sound alarming. After all, upwards of 92 per cent of students aren’t cheating. So why is the federal government preparing legislation to tackle contract cheating by banning the websites that offer to write student essays for a fee? Two reasons:

First, even small instances of cheating can undermine the integrity of entire segments of society. The recent royal commission into the banking sector revealed serious ethical and legal lapses at all of the big banks. And while the banks would point out that only a small fraction of their customers had been affected, the outcome is that public trust in the big banks is plumbing new depths.

Second, over the last two decades, higher education has become one of Australia’s most valuable exports. We have discovered that huge numbers of students from countries such as China, India, Nepal, Malaysia and Vietnam are eager to spend large sums of money to obtain Australian higher education degrees. In 2018 the total value of foreign currency brought into the Australian economy through the presence of close to 500,000 international students was $38 billion. Simply put, the international education market is “too big to fail.”

Various warning signs have popped up over the years that the academic integrity of the sector may be at risk. In 2015 the Independent Commission Against Corruption published “Learning the Hard Way: Managing Corruption Risks Associated with International Students”. The ABC’s Four Corners has tackled the issue twice: in 2015 with Degrees of Deception, and earlier this year with Cash Cows. And SBS recently investigated the contract cheating issue with Pens for Hire: How Students Cheat and How They Get Away With It.

The problem is serious enough that the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency has funded 20 half-day workshops across the country. Professor Bretag and others share a comprehensive review of the research into contract cheating and other forms of misconduct, and lead participants through a series of activities to make academic integrity a strong part of their institutional culture.

Amongst all higher ed learners in Australia, males, younger students, business and engineering students, and international English as an Additional Language (EAL) students are substantially more likely to cheat. Bretag’s research has identified three factors that influence contract cheating:

1. Students whose first language is not English
2. The perception that there are “lots of opportunities to cheat”
3. Dissatisfaction with the teaching and learning environment

These factors are amplified where students perceive there is a lack of institutional support for academic integrity, where there is little fear of detection and/or consequences for getting caught, and where the pressures and complexity of life combine with poor time management skills, procrastination, and other behavioural factors. Tellingly, in our student survey findings, the leading reason for cheating included pressure to perform well (35 per cent).

Increasingly, academic integrity is also being considered within the context of the student experience, so it is encouraging to see student journalists at the University of Sydney investigating the issue. Nell O’Grady and Annie Zhang write about “the plight of vulnerable students” and identify research that suggests many students do “not set out to cheat – instead, they slide into cheating because they can be persuaded that it is appropriate assessment behaviour for their particular circumstances”.

O’Grady and Zhang confirmed this in their own survey, and they quote one respondent, a computer science student who outsourced their entire assignment “due to an unbearable university workload”. They also “pointed out that the university does not do enough to support students who need writing help”.

It’s therefore promising that our national student survey found that an overwhelming majority (71 per cent) of students said that additional study support lessens the chance of cheating.

Finally, our data also reflected that international students were more likely to have cheated compared to local students (12 per cent vs 7.5 per cent) and that the 42–49 age group admitted to cheating the most (20 per cent) compared to the 18–25 age group (8 per cent). O’Grady and Zhang note that, for international students studying at Sydney University, a single unit can cost up to $5,500. “Combined with other pressures, one can see how vulnerable international students might resort to cheating when the consequences of failure are so severe.”

What starts as a hazy picture starts to gain greater clarity. Addressing the issue of academic integrity and contract cheating requires us to simultaneously view it through two perspectives. The economic relationship between university and student underpins mutual dependencies that may encourage lax oversight by the former and cheating behaviours by the latter.

And the moral imperative to protect the sector’s reputation requires every university to make a deeper cultural commitment to academic integrity. In practice, this means ensuring every student they enrol has access to readily accessible, high-quality support to give them the best possible chance to succeed.

Jack Goodman is the founder and executive chair of Studiosity, a provider of online academic literacy support for higher education institutions.

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  1. I can’t see anything wrong with asking a critical friend to proof read an essay. There is nothing available for students at the university level for this type of support. Good proof reading where the reader highlights errors and notes they need to be addressed helps the student to improve in the future. Why would you put asking a family member to proof read in the cheating category?

    • I agree. I have been providing support for university students for 30+ years and I have always encouraged them to use their peers and family members as critical eyes and as a test of ‘readability’ (with the stipulation of providing CONSTRUCTIVE feedback). I have decades of evidence showing how this improves the students’ own critical eye.
      What I see as a bigger and more serious issue is the repeated examples of breaches of academic integrity, corruption, lies and deceit at senior levels across society, from individuals that are supposed to represent role models. The shift to direct students to online support, I believe, is not the most ideal approach to teach skills in both reading and writing, particularly when the issue of academic integrity is not exactly black and white.

    • The reason a proofreading service is not available at university level is because it is considered unethical. As a learning advisor at a university, my job is to discuss a student’s work with them prior to submission and suggest changes/improvements… BUT NOT MAKE THESE CHANGES MYSELF. I can show them where their grammar is shaky, or where they haven’t answered part of the question, or where their paragraph needs a stronger topic sentence. Pointing out to a student that their topic sentence is weak is not the same as telling a student what to write instead… this is where the line is.
      Then it is the student’s responsibility to go away and make the changes on their own, if they chose to do so. This means that they are the sole author of their work. I think that is quite clear.

  2. This is very interesting. What is the way forward? Do we cease all assessments (elephant in the room)?.. What has changed since 20 years ago? It is important to note that advances in technology has also made cheating much easier.

    I note this with keen interest “Ask a friend or family member to proofread your essay”, does this constitute cheating?

  3. You know, lying by people in high level management at our university is an everyday event … I cannot understand how a University can be led by people who tell outright lies as a matter of course, whenever those lies serve their own agenda – and yet at the same time, come down hard on students for plagiarism. The hypocrisy is bizarre. There is one rule for people high up the management chain, and another for everyone else.

  4. We recommend getting a family member or friend to proofread assignments and reports, to help with grammar and spelling errors, particularly for English as a second language students. How is this cheating? Many students, including those from Australian schools,have a very poor grasp of spelling and grammar, and anything we can do to help with this is a bonus in preparing students for a career.

    • Where this becomes a problem is that a document that has been altered by a second party ceases to be a document with a single author – it becomes co-authored. How is a marker able to evaluate the actual writer when they can’t be certain which parts of the writing were done by the student in question? While we may ask students to seek help with grammar and spelling with the best of intentions, it often becomes the case that the helper then asks other questions like ‘is x what you meant to say here?’ or ‘wouldn’t your essay make more sense if you made it about x, and changed it like this…’ and away they go making substantial changes to the student’s work. Even for professional academic skills teachers it can be difficult to draw the line that separates help from too much help, and they have the luxury of thinking about that question for a living. Are casual helpers, despite their good intentions, likely to be across where these lines are? And is it reasonable to expect them to be? I don’t wish to be too great of a pessimist, but I don’t think they are, and I don’t think it is, respectively. As tough as it is on the student, it’s best for them to work toward identifying rectifying issues with their writing on their own (via feedback and conversations with support staff, academics, and peers – not via direct editing by any of these parties or anyone else). And, as tough as it is for the teachers, it’s also a good idea for them to evaluate their own expectations, particularly with regard to students with English as a second or other language. It is, after all, not really reasonable or realistic to expect non-native speakers of English to produce work that is free of grammatical errors.

      • …gosh, the lines do become blurred. Reviewing journal articles or book chapters, I may occasionally ask ‘is this what you meant to say?’, ‘have you thought about this?’, ‘what about incorporating work by so and so?’, ‘you haven’t addressed your aims clearly’, ‘your work would be of more value if….’ etc. I may also suggest rewording in places in order to clarify meaning. I am then an author???

        I am sure I am not the only reviewer who has done this!

        So….as you stated Shaun, how much help is too much help?

        I’m also curious as to the suggestion of “…rectifying issues with their writing on their own (via feedback and conversations with support staff, academics, and peers..”

        Please understand that this is not intended to sound facetious in any way, but how is this, ‘on their own’? and what exactly would be the ‘content’ of these discussion with support staff, academics and peers?

        Surely, the right advice in the right way, can encourage students to develop their own critical eye.

        Ultimately, I would like to know WHERE EXACTLY do students access this help?

        • The kind of feedback you are referring to is just feedback, and as I mentioned before I think feedback is just fine. The issue is when the helper CHANGES the document. Giving feedback is one thing, actual editing is something else entirely. You’ll note that in my comment I talked about such situations as becoming a problem when the helper goes ahead and makes the changes.

          I also think it’s important to distinguish between writing for publications and for the purposes of assessment. There is a general understanding that publications like journal articles or books can be 1) multi-authored as per the author list, and 2) edited by an editor of some sort (who is usually stated). In cases where I have worked on reviewing publications, if it has reached a point where my input is becoming too substantial I have asked to be added as an author, or at the very least explicitly acknowledged in the acknowledgements section. None of this is case for assessments for university students though, where the expectation is that the work you are marking is the work of that student, and that student alone.

          So as far as the line goes, that’s where I tend to draw it. Offer feedback to the student, but don’t go ahead and make the changes to their work – allow the student to act on the feedback themselves.

          So where exactly do students access this help? In a number of places. I’m such a person – I’m employed by a university to do exactly this. In fact, most universities employ academic skills staff, and have writing feedback services of one sort or another.

          Students bring me written work, I look over it, and then very carefully give them feedback about what they’re doing well and where they could use improvement. However, it’s very much a matter of showing them where to look, but not telling them what to see. I might point out that their argument only becomes apparent in their conclusion for example, and then ask them whether they think that makes their document hard to understand for a marker who doesn’t have the time to read and re-read student essays. When I ask them how they could change it to make things easier on the reader, they usually rightly figure out for themselves that a clear argument statement should be in the introduction somewhere.

          The point here is that I NEVER alter their document. And, the feedback I give is carefully considered, and intended to help the student increase their academic literacy in a way that sticks (understanding as opposed to just reproduction of a given example). The point I was hoping to make with my comment earlier is that people usually don’t realise how tricky all of this is.

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