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Contract cheating: a hornet’s nest further stirred up by Covid-19

Contract cheating is more rampant in Australian universities than most would have ever imagined. One in 10 students are guilty of paying someone to write assignments or to do their online exams for them across universities in Australia, a recent study from the University of Western Australia has revealed.

A contract cheating service provider told The PIE that clients “often traded spending time on their assignments, for doing paid work”. Photo: pexels

Contract cheating services has become a globally networked provision, growing rampantly across many countries including Australia

The percentage was earlier believed to be around 2-4%.

Adoption of innovative data collection and survey techniques by researchers, in particular by Guy Curtis from UWA, has had more students admitting to using online assignment help (read cheating) services, with students feeling more comfortable in making the disclosure.

With more assignments moving online over the past few years and the in-person assessment methods being overtaken by online exams, a market of providers willing to do the work for the students in exchange for money has mushroomed. 

And as universities have shifted to fully online delivery modes, particularly in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, some suggest that an increasing number of students have found it easier to get someone else to work for them. The chances of their getting caught are slim compared to normal times.

The PIE’s investigative research has found that it is not only a sporadic setup. Rather there seems to be a well-established ecosystem of contract cheating providers in Australia who operate through websites and social media channels and groups, based both in and out of the country.

These providers also target students for whom English is not their first language. Of the students who have admitted to employing such services, those with English as their second or third language have been found to be three times more in number than those for whom English is a native language.

Contract cheating providers provide a range of services across a wide array of subjects to cover a large chunk of this growing student market. In addition to subject specific courses, they also provide their services for language courses, in particular English language courses. Many are also employing ‘Covid discounts’ to lure students.

They target students through Facebook, Twitter, as well as messaging services such as WeChat and WhatsApp. Running as well oiled machines, some offer ‘24/7 support’, ‘fast delivery’, ‘guaranteed results’, ‘complete discretion’, as well as a ‘money back guarantee’ if anything were to go wrong, to students who choose to avail their services.

One website offering ‘Assignment Help’, says, “If anyone were to find out that you didn’t do your own papers and paid for online assignment help, you’d be in big trouble. Well with our company, there is absolutely no reason to worry. Your privacy and security are two of our biggest concerns. So, don’t worry about that.”

Some of the providers offer both UK and Australia mobile contact numbers. Photo: Facebook

Another service provider, while offering customised assignment solutions, is also selling ready-made assignments.

“Our efficient academic writers have prepared numerous English assignments on many such similar topics,” says its website.

“Many students from Adelaide, Gold Coast, Brisbane, Albany, Perth, Queensland, Sydney, and Melbourne have received remarkable rewards for the assignments prepared with the help provided by our writing experts. You too can taste the academic success simply by availing our cheap yet superior quality assignment writing services.” 

According to Australian laws passed in September 2020, providers found to be selling contract cheating services can face up to two years in prison and a fine of up to $110,000 for providing such services and/or advertising them. However, students found to have taken assistance of such services are not liable for punitive action under the law, and are subject to be dealt with under their respective institutions’ policies and procedures on academic integrity.

One service provider, speaking to The PIE News on condition of anonymity, admitted they were “fully aware”  that completing university assignments for students in return for money was illegal in Australia.

They in fact knew about the recent 2020 legislation as well, and acknowledged that it was something that they should not be doing.

“There was no way [the students] could complete a single assignment”

However, they put the blame on the demand for such services and the global environment of higher education, adding that contract cheating practices are “rampant across major study destination countries”. Providers are offering services worldwide, they said, suggesting the practice had become “so widespread, that no major study destination country remained untouched” by it.

However, they said that there are “very clear reasons” for a rising demand for contract cheating services as a result of Australia’s higher education set up.

Firstly, they claimed a lot of the private higher education providers in Australia enrolled international students without assessing their English competencies properly. “There was no way [the students] could complete a single assignment” in their courses as a result of lacking basic English language skills, they suggested.

Secondly, the illicit provider felt many students were opting for courses which would give them a better shot at applying for permanent residency. While competent, they “often found it very hard to do their assignments up to the standard required for them to complete the course” as a result of coming from a very different educational background.

They also suggested clients are students who would rather work, and “often traded spending time on their assignments, for doing paid work”. They chose to outsource the assignment writing to someone else who specialised in the subject and was ready to do the job for them.

The source also claimed there were many large companies involved in the enterprise of contract cheating worldwide, who are taking advantage of the systemic loopholes in different destination countries, such as Australia.

Towards the end of the interview, they added that they also taught students, and preferred not to “spoon-feed” them. However, they did everything for those who wanted a finished product from start-to-end.

They said that they wished this was not the case with the international HE sector, but they are only a small player in this fast-mushrooming market. The PIE approached a number of companies providing ‘Assignment Help’, but only one responded to the request for an interview.

Australia’s Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency is working towards ensuring action is taken against service providers under the laws. The agency is working with other key stakeholders in the sector to counter the growing menace by cheating services providers.

One of the main reasons contract cheating has become rampant and why so few students are ever caught (one in hundred), let alone punished, is because it takes a considerable amount of looking into and time on part of the academics marking the papers — something which they just do not have the luxury of, given the number of assignments they have to go through.

Additionally, a lead has to be looked into detail and the evidence has to be conclusive.

“Contract cheating is a challenging problem for universities, more so than other forms of cheating because it is not possible to detect through plagiarism detection tools,” explained Grady Venville, deputy vice-chancellor (Academic) at The Australian National University.

“[We] are extremely concerned by the brazen activities of contract cheating services that impact universities globally”

“The best way to deter all forms of cheating is for teaching staff to design high quality methods of assessment and feedback for their students. For example, if students are required to submit and discuss their essay plan with their tutor for feedback before developing the full essay and then they present the main points to their class, contract cheating becomes much more difficult.”

Other “robust” assessment strategies Venville suggested include group projects, debates, oral presentations, viva voce, time limited assessments, and a “vast array” of authentic assessments.

“Of course these strategies do require time and effort from teachers so they get to know their students and their work and are more likely to pick up anomalies that will be evident if contract cheating is used,” Venville noted.

“Appropriately valuing the work of teachers and ensuring they are paid appropriately and work in a supportive environment is critical for high quality education. Students should also be provided with appropriate support and guidance, so that they do not feel under so much pressure that they resort to cheating.”

The University of Melbourne seeks to ensure students understand the importance of academic integrity via detailed processes and educational programs, it highlighted.

“The overwhelming majority of students demonstrate a commitment to academic integrity, however a very small minority of students do not. Those formally investigated for breaching academic integrity face penalties ranging from reprimands, the revision of assessments and an assessment task or subject fail,” a spokesperson for the institution told The PIE.

The highest academic standards have been maintained throughout the pandemic, they added.

“We are committed to safeguarding the integrity of our educational programs, and are extremely concerned by the brazen activities of contract cheating services that impact universities globally,” a University of Sydney spokesperson added.

“We continually work to provide information, services, education and support to our students as they transition to university and throughout their time studying with us.”

Responding to “increased and aggressive activity” by contract cheating companies from 2019, the institution “developed a multi-pronged strategy based on additional student education, staffing support and training, assessment redesign, targeted technological and other detection strategies, policy change and improved investigation methods”.

“We continually adjust this strategy as the threat evolves,” they said, in addition to working closely with TEQSA to “reduce and eliminate risk to the sector, and apply penalties ranging from failure to suspension and expulsion”.

However, high rates of staff lay offs during the last two years, many of whom were casual tutors and markers, may not have helped. 

“This problem is not limited to a particular university or country; it is international”

Since, contract cheating services has become a globally networked provision, growing rampantly across many countries including Australia, one of the solutions could be to take a collaborative approach in order to tackle it.

Researchers from Charles Darwin University have suggested that individual academics, universities, international bodies, as well as countries, should come together and work towards a collaborative approach to address this problem, which threatens to rob future generations of vital knowledge and skills that they are enrolled to learn.

“There is a certain spectrum of plagiaristic activity, with the darker side of contract cheating involving criminal activities of assuming and allowing the assumption of another person’s identity for the purposes of committing fraud,” researchers concluded.

“This problem is not limited to a particular university or country; it is international, and as such, it poses considerable jurisdictional issues in enforcing laws. Further, the possibility of committing crime in this regard has been exacerbated by the transfer to online teaching across the whole education sector as a result of Covid-19.”

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