Unlearn cheating: the plight of the vulnerable student

Not all who cheat are lost.

Enter the cubicle of any bathroom on campus, and you’ll see ads for essay help and ghostwriting services plastered to the door. Advertisements for these services circulate on social media platforms like WeChat, and find their way into student inboxes and message banks. At USyd’s very own Welcome Week this year, two stalls were shut down after distributing contract cheating materials. 

The contract cheating industry seems only to be growing — but so are efforts to crack down upon it. In April, screensavers on USyd library computers were changed to a digital notice warning that “contract cheating puts everyone at risk.” USyd licenced Authorship Investigate for trial this year, a machine learning tool developed by Turnitin to learn a student’s writing style and flag divergences. In July, the federal government drafted legislation making contract cheating a criminal offence, a move that was welcomed by USyd.

In August, a new detection method developed by the University of New South Wales recognised that contract cheating practices had risen on campus by 2000%.  With deterrence through assignment design being deemed impossible by university faculties, the focus is now on prosecution. Perhaps this aggressive stance is where the problem lies. 

In a corporatising system that places the onus on the individual, institutions often fail to recognise the complexities behind the issue. The normalisation of contract cheating for students within certain communities, the targeting of students by major organisations, and the financial, cultural and familial pressures that come with completing a university degree far from home are just some relevant factors. In underground networks of ghostwriting communities, one can see an issue far more complex and intricate than can be ‘Unlearnt’ through C-Sight Forums, writing hubs, mandatory modules and ‘criminal offence’ legislation. 

What has clearly been missing in public discussions of contract cheating is a middle ground, as well as a look into the intricacies of what truly forms the contract cheating network. 

Understanding the Uni response

The force surrounding the eradication of contract cheating is understandable when one observes its broader effect on a university’s reputation.

“Even for students who shun any form of cheating (the overwhelming majority), contract cheating poses a risk to the reputation of the degrees they will earn,” a University of Sydney spokesperson told Honi. Cheating can undermine the rankings of individual students, as well as the academic integrity of entire units of study. 

“We go to great lengths to protect students and their degrees from this risk.”  

Yet the ways in which universities have cracked down on contract cheating has created a public narrative that fails to consider or investigate the issue’s nuances. Scare tactics do not seem to have any effect because they do not recognise that if students are either in desperate need of support or consider the networks to be so well concealed that they will not be found out, then they will continue to cheat regardless of university meddling. Surely universities should be informing students of the potential risks that go far beyond just failing a unit. 

We spoke to Cath Ellis, an Associate Professor at UNSW and a researcher in academic integrity. She elaborated upon some of the considerations that often fail to be explored in university discussions on contract cheating:  “The emotional and financial costs of getting caught, the risk of blackmail, the risks from the lax data security of people who are providing these services (as the 2014 MyMaster scandal demonstrated), and the risks of receiving poor quality work and failing anyway and therefore the risks of losing money.”

This month, USyd distributed a series of emails introducing the implementation of a C-Sights forum: an anonymous and confidential academic integrity discussion that asks students to consider the reasons why contract cheating is occurring across campuses, and what it can do to help prevent further misconduct. 

This investigation is the first time a Sydney university has attempted proper peer review research into the ins and outs of student cheating. Nevertheless, the impact of this survey will likely be minimal. Students are not encouraged to engage beyond this new online space. They’re also not reminded in classes of the issue’s significance. Those who do engage in contract cheating out of a genuine disregard for academic integrity will shy away, whilst those who cheat out of desperation will perhaps not consider the forum a priority The university needs to consider the structural change at play and this starts by ensuring that all students are engaged in the conversation. 

The vulnerable cheater 

But why do students cheat at all? Cath Ellis identified three key factors that had a high correlation with contracting cheating behaviour.

“Students whose first language is one other than English, students who were feeling dissatisfied with the teaching environment in which they were learning and students who saw an opportunity to cheat,” she said.

An anonymous survey of international students conducted by Honi demonstrated an overwhelmingly negative perception of contract cheaters.  Students who cheat were called “rich and lazy”, “serial procrastinators”, “indolent”, “useless.” These views conjure the popular stereotype of affluent international students simply too lazy or unbothered to do their own work.

However, this stereotype is not necessarily reflective of the reality. Many students appear to cheat out of struggle, necessity, desperation and inadequate support. A 2018 joint paper written by academics Susan Rowland and Christine Slade and students Kai-Sheng Wong and Brooke Whiting coins the notion of the “vulnerable” cheating student.

“We propose that the ‘vulnerable’ student is a person who does 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,” the study reads. 

“The term ‘vulnerable’ does not mean that the student is innocent of blame when they cheat. It does, however, mean that the student is facing extenuating circumstances that make cheating appear to be less distasteful than other outcomes that may eventuate.”

One of our survey respondents, a computer science student, hired someone to complete their entire assignment through a friend’s recommendation. They said that they resorted to this method due to an unbearable university workload, and pointed out that the university does not do enough to support students who need writing help. For international students in particular, the price of studying at USyd can cost up to around $5500 a unit. Failing a subject and needing to retake it will add further thousands to the cost. Combined with other pressures, one can see how vulnerable international students might resort to cheating when the consequences of failure are so severe.

The agencies hiding behind the sandstone

Interestingly, certain types of students are specifically targeted by contract cheating outlets — most notably, students whose first language is not English. With 38% of all international students in Australia coming from China, advertisements for ghostwriting companies are typically written in Chinese. They are also frequently circulated around WeChat and other social media platforms, with many agencies even directly reaching out to students themselves — leaving comments on posts, messaging people directly, or sending personalised emails to their inboxes.

Furthermore, most contract cheating companies don a guise of legitimacy, masquerading as tutoring centres and ‘essay editing’ services. EasyGPA, an organisation that USyd has refused to confirm is amongst those targeting its students, has sent thousands of emails to various students across campus, seemingly targeting students with Chinese last names. 

Researchers at Deakin University also found that some companies were scamming students into believing that working with an organisation would guarantee a high grade. They described the organisations as offering “variable quality assignments”, late submissions, and slow responses to user queries. “When markers graded work, 52% of cheated tasks failed to meet the university pass standard,” academic Wendy Sutherland Smith noted in the study.

Some websites, mostly written in Chinese languages, also claim to be affiliated with particular universities. This creates an illusion of trustworthiness and accountability, something all too needed for students who are suffering academically. Plustudy is one example, a company that provides essay writing and editing services, that claims to cooperate with university institutions like RMIT, UNSW and UTS. 

The next step

As yet, there have been few major student-led perspectives on contract cheating in Australian universities. Students have little opportunity to address this issue publicly, and the task is therefore mostly left to the University which, with its bureaucracy, will never truly understand the student experience. Ultimately, contract cheating, while on the rise at the University of Sydney, remains low across the board. And for those who do cheat, the focus is concentrated on their actions rather than the circumstances that led to them. Our increasingly corporatised universities have focused most of their attention on tackling the symptoms of the root issue, rather than ensuring that all students are adequately supported. 

But what can the university do to help students? Our survey respondents suggested several possibilities: more workshops for international students, writing workshops focused on Western essay-writing structures and styles, mentorship, and greater flexibility with extensions. 

While universities continue to push their drastic fear-mongering narratives, the student voice consistently goes unheard. Instead of criminalising contract cheating, an issue that cannot be solved at surface level, USyd needs to engage with the environment that so often leads to these behaviours. To start, the University needs a vast expansion of the Brennan McCallum learning hub’s services, and better facilities tailored to working students and students whose first language is not English. Asking for help should not facilitate an environment of embarrassment or anxiety. Existing services should be better advertised and tailored more specifically to individual student needs. In the case of special considerations and extensions, university staff should take a compassionate investigative approach to each individual student and balance fairness with flexibility. 

Ultimately, the University needs to stop engaging with students in such antagonistic, limited and tokenistic ways. Students cannot thrive in a punitive and alarmist culture. We need a supportive university environment that is responsive to each student’s individual needs and circumstances.

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