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.
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