Contract cheating is not the problem

This headline was plagiarised

In their June meeting, the University Executive endorsed an awareness campaign around the dangers of contract cheating. The resulting product was an email to staff and students, as well as an explanatory article on the University’s website.

The gist of the email was unsurprising: students risk stiff academic penalties if caught using contract cheating services, where students pay companies to write assignments or complete exams for them. They also included a reminder that their (heavily criticised and deeply dysfunctional) special considerations services were available for students in need.

This particular response is nothing new. For universities increasingly concerned with protecting their brand value, contract cheating poses a serious threat, that from their perspective, requires an overwhelmingly punitive response.

In the largest study into its prevalence, conducted by the University of South Australia, 6% of Australian students admitted to using contract cheating services in the past—and the trend is rapidly growing.

In 2015, the Sydney Morning Herald reported that contract cheating service ‘MyMaster’ was supplying essays to hundreds of students at NSW universities. Over 60 had been requested by University of Sydney students.

This year, several hundred USyd students were investigated for use of work derived from tutoring companies in two units alone—in the Business School and the School of Engineering and Information Technologies.

Contract cheating is far more difficult to detect than other forms of plagiarism as the purchased essays vary widely in quality and are tailored to specific assignments.

Technology used to detect plagiarism is not always able to pick up on contract cheating because the submissions are still original pieces of work. In response, TurnItIn is developing systems to compare future assignments with the writing style of students’ previous hand-ins.

A recent study at Deakin University found tutors who were not specifically trained to find contract cheating submissions were able to detect them only 60% of the time, and only when tutors were directed to look for it.

At the same time USyd’s awareness campaign does nothing but pay brief lip-service to support services that may prevent students from using contract cheating services.

This is despite the fact that a two year multi-university project on contract cheating concluded that “contract cheating is a symptom, not the problem.” The findings assessed that the “commercialisation of universities [has] created a ‘perfect storm’ for the proliferation of contract cheating.”

Unsurprisingly, the project’s belief that structural reasons are why students turn to contract cheating are not addressed by the University’s new approach.

The ‘Contract Cheating and Assessment Design’ project concluded that a student’s spoken language at home has the greatest impact on whether a student will use contract cheating services.

This aligns with mounting evidence that Australian universities superficially underestimate their courses’ required language standards in order to enrol more students— many of whom may struggle with course content if English isn’t their native tongue.

Vice Chancellor Spence’s email, sent just before exams, reminded students of the limited language support services the University provides, yet did not address the structural fact that even for writing intensive subjects such as those in the Law School, courses require only ‘competence’ in English.

The inability of even the national university regulator, the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency, to consistently oversee these course standards contributes to the problem: by its own reporting, it is struggling to deal with a backlog of cases year-to-year.

Nor does USyd’s approach address student dissatisfaction with their learning experiences—another key indicator of whether students will turn to contract cheating.

In the most recent tertiary student satisfaction survey, USyd ranked amongst the lowest in Australia.

Rather than a response that speaks to the mounting problems with corporatised universities, of which contract cheating is a symptom, students are instead given a brief scaremongering email.

Students risk future career prospects, degrees and even their visas by accessing contract cheating services. Their motivations may not excuse conduct in all cases, but the University’s narrow, cheap and punitive response fails to address the root of the problem, and fails all students.