The COVID-19 pandemic was accompanied by an increase in cheating, especially contract cheating. Many attributed this development to the move from face-to-face to online delivery and assessment, and there is now a popular view that a return to on-campus delivery will solve the problem. However, cheating had been increasing well before COVID-19, and the current university business model is not well suited to addressing it. In this paper, the author discusses the complex motivations for cheating, the historical changes in assessment practices that have contributed to it, and measures that can be adopted by higher education institutions to reduce it.
As the world adjusts to the COVID-19 era, university international marketing activities have once more returned to a highly costly upsurge of constant globe-trotting, scouring the back lots of emerging nations and rural and urban marketing exhibitions with the intent of luring students to Australia or Australian Foreign Branch Campuses or wherever they can be enrolled into our institutions. University International Divisions throw any notions of green travel or carbon neutrality in the bin as they clock up exponential air miles every year visiting increasingly remote destinations in search of their elusive quarry and then driving yet further from hotel to hotel whilst doing their sales rep sweeps of Southeast Asia. The internet doesn’t seem to have, as yet, replaced boots on the ground, seats round the buffet table - in-country marketing approaches – not even in the age of online everything.
Emphatically, international student revenue oils the wheels of our tertiary environment and COVID- 19’s lockdowns and restrictions have revealed how dependent the Australian sector has actually become on international student income. Of course, it’s not just Australia but the UK, Canada, USA, and others who are reliant upon (and competing for) this revenue. From Vientiane to Phnom Penh and Phuket to Denpasar the stumbling blocks (and revenue opportunities) are many:
Can we attract students who are up to our claimed standards?
Do the students possess the language skills essential for successfully studying in English?
Can we sell them a preparatory language or skills pathway to bring them up to the required standard?
The British Council’s IELTS language courses and tests have become an accepted industry standard in assessing the language abilities of prospective students for tertiary offerings. Despite the requirement to pass IELTS at the levels specified for courses of tertiary study it seems to be the case that English language competencies continue to be problematic for some enrolled students (Rhiannon Down, The Australian 20th Sept 2022; Emilie Lauer, 21st Sept 2022, CR) who may turn to online contract assignment writing websites to help them towards academic success.
COVID-19 and the rush to offer everything tertiary online has, as everybody appreciates, shifted the sands in respect to how university education is experienced. This includes further moves into assessing courses remotely via online assignments, quizzes, and allied tests. Tim Dodd (CR Oct 5, 2022) reports an ‘alarming’ increase in related cases of online plagiarism and contract cheating since COVID-19 arrived, but this unwanted element of academic cheating isn’t new. Moreover, it has been a central factor in the slow rise of online education around the world. The question has always been and remains: How do we know it is actually the student who has authored the submitted work?
Some countries, the UAE for example, have, until fairly recently, refused to recognise any qualifications gained online as valid, and with some reason. From American online degree mills to high turnover Assignment Joy style assignment writing platforms, it has often been very easy for those intending to make false academic representations to do so. This has been the case for at least a decade. Some ‘for profit’ providers have simply sold bogus, unaccredited, and non-externally audited online qualifications to anyone willing to pay. And during COVID the supposed failings of various online providers has even caused a number of Australian universities to recently cease accepting Ontario Secondary School Diploma transcripts submitted from around 150 of the Ontario-based private secondary schools who have been working online, according to Rachel Fergus, spokeswoman for the University of Sydney (Doug Ronson, The Pie News Oct 12, 2022 ). Whilst The Times Higher Education’s Asian correspondent, Pola Lem, (THE October 18, 2022) reports that even though Indian ‘institutions offering mediocre engineering qualifications’ are now going out of business, private provider and ’for-profit players, have found a new opening in the digital sphere…’
THROWING AWAY THE BABY WITH THE BATHWATER
The temptation for governments, education authorities and even major universities to put blanket bans on entire market segments of online providers or to question the authenticity or surety of all online offerings is an overreaction. To simply do so follows that old, crooked logic thinking of: A dog has four legs, fur, and a tail. So, everything with four legs, fur and a tail is a dog? Clearly, that reasoning is questionable. Across the board most of our major universities have been beset with issues around contract cheating and assignment fraud but the will to expose such issues publicly is not strong. Students are revenue. Reputation is capricious. And a question arises in respect to whether creating an iron clad system and reputation for rooting out and removing cheating students would actually enhance an institution’s attractiveness and competitiveness?
Appropriately accredited and monitored private providers are, of course, in an entirely different category to those private providers whose intent is to profit from faking academia. We maintain that online provision and fully accredited private providers aren’t the problem – it is how we choose to assess and engage with students that makes the difference. And the recent QILT 2022 responses unambiguously indicate that a number of Australian private providers (those not embedded in research, but highly teaching focussed) have, again, topped the charts nationally in respect to engaging with and supporting students during their studies.
The QILT results help show that some of our smaller, private providers pride themselves on knowing their students and their capacities and in helping them avoid the temptation to resort to assignment fraud. This is an active identity and element of their overall business planning. Meaningfully engaging with students continues to be a difficulty for many of our larger Australian entities in developing consistent relationships with their online student cohorts - especially in the COVID-19 move away from face-to-face teaching. At UBSS, for example, course coordinators are required to regularly connect with each student individually, F2F and also online and through Zoom style interactions, in order to constantly monitor their progress and to discuss assignments, etc. The students are all known, engaged with, and monitored throughout their studies by staff dedicated to this process. This is something which becomes harder to achieve when the numbers of students within any given course grow exponentially, as they do in many public universities. Utilising experienced faculty focused solely upon teaching as opposed to research, teaching and administration has a significant part to play in engaging and knowing who any institution’s students actually are. With smaller student bodies getting to know students becomes more feasible. In this respect, smaller is better. But this is only one minor part of creating the cheating solution.
Tim Dodd states (CR Oct 5, 2022) “the detected proportion of student cheating at the University of NSW exploded to an “alarming” rate during the COVID-19 pandemic, with the number of serious plagiarism cases investigated up by 71 per cent to 769 last year compared with the previous year”. The university blamed the prolific nature of this increase in cheating upon the move to online delivery and the university’s DVC, Professor George Williams, further points to returning to some level of face to face ‘in person exams’ as one possible answer.
Certainly, back in the days of yore (which wasn’t all that long ago in my opinion) essays during a term were frequently (certainly in many European universities) just indicators of a student’s progress rather than pivotal elements of their summative assessment. In the UK, end-of-year and end-of-term exams and tests customarily determined whether a student continued or departed. And even then, student essays and exam papers were submitted anonymously and often marked collegially at a peer institution – thus overcoming the risk of bias or nepotism. But most interestingly, the teaching term (or semester) was not bulked-up with continuous pauses for internal assessment processes or reviewing of assignment group work in the way that many academic courses are now delivered. Teaching and assessment were, essentially, further separated and teaching was the more dominant activity with summative assessment occurring only at the end of an intensive teaching period. What we have now is a study, test & forget hurdle approach – where what is learnt in any given semester or academic year may never be revisited. Consequently, students clear an assessment hurdle (with or without the help of contract cheating) conceivably never having to return to demonstrate retention of that specific area of learning again. This ‘one off’ hurdle approach does little to deter cheating.
Though UNSW is to be applauded for its move for transparency in recently acknowledging the complex issue of system wide cheating, Professor Williams only nudges the tip of the iceberg when he further refers to contract cheating and plagiarism not just in essay writing but significantly in math, sciences, IT, engineering, and computer sciences. The issue of student academic integrity and probity places the entire worth of the qualifications value chain at risk. With allegations of medical students and others in professional degree programs also resorting to extensive cheating, concerns about the academic worth of university qualifications inevitably arise. It further raises the question of whether cheating has simply become irrevocably ‘endemic’ within our entire system through the increased use of new technologies which are susceptible to such practices. If that is actually the case, why has our university sector taken so long and done so little to resolve this crisis?
However, I believe this is a resolvable scenario. Again, much of the answer lies in how we choose to assess students’ work and the higher education sector’s willingness to move away from some of its current assessment practices.
A RETURN TO THE EXAMINATION HALL?
Returning to face-to-face examinations is a possible answer to elements of the student fraud scenario. Though the examinations hall could either be a physical space or an electronically mediated and timed virtual space. Essays written in timed online examinations are also commonly utilised by some institutions. By far the greatest potential to determine that students are individually progressing, up-to-speed and academically equipped is to return to the viva voce. Again, this may be laborious and time consuming, but it is recognised as highly effective – and can be conducted live via Zoom or other electronic interfaces. A student questioned in real time has to either know their subject or be left wanting. Emphatically, it is the student who gets to demonstrate their learning – and not an external actor on a contract cheating website. Some universities do this already in a variety of disciplines. Doing it routinely and across the board would be a means of authoritatively gauging true student progression and achievement.
Many of our universities actually claim to be highly alert to the unwanted development of increased cheating and are said to be actively seeking solutions. Anti-plagiarism software and blocking contract cheating websites are the initial and obvious actions to take, but the problems may be wider than the headline electronically mediated methodologies utilised by some. According to Rhiannon Down and Emilie Lauer’s reports, contract cheating websites are now offering services which beat most plagiarism detecting software – so the academic cheating arms race between service providers and the academy is clearly ramping up.
Less on the radar, perhaps, is the potential for non-contract and familial augmentation of assignments and online assessments by others. Or, in the old currency: parental involvement. In just the last month we at UBSS have (coincidentally) also come across a small number of parents who state that they take their children’s tertiary education so seriously that they have been checking, editing, re-writing and ‘adding value to’ every online assignment and test their sons and daughters have been given - including the academic dissertation of one young man studying at masters level. So, where does the definition of ‘cheating’ actually begin and that of ‘academically supporting and helping students achieve success’ end? Does having another student help you out with the content and phrasing of an assignment, possibly drawing upon their own essay on the same subject matter, also count as cheating or is this just a form of peer-to-peer learning? Well, when you study the rules governing how plagiarism and academic cheating are construed the answers are very clear. But who (other than academic staff) is actually reading and respecting these rules is much less clear. It doesn’t seem to be household reading for everyone.
And though the number of parents admitting to overly helping their offspring in this way has been small, these parents have not been your average mums and dads helping kids with ‘homework’ but academically experienced professionals who speak English as their first language and whose sons and daughters have attended top private schools and are studying at highly ranked tertiary institutions. Having their children consistently achieve the highest possible grades is important to them. They may see helping their children in this fashion as entirely legitimated by the competitive, elitist nature of tertiary education which has been further complicated during the COVID move away from F2F teaching. These are parents who have been heavily invested in sending their offspring to those leading private schools that boast consistently strong track records for students gaining entry to elite universities. They are also parents who have supplemented expensive schooling with private tutors to further hone their children’s academic skills. They have been able to financially make investment after investment in their children’s education. Is this heaping advantage upon advantage when it comes to gaining admission to peak tertiary institutions or simply competitive educational market forces in action? When contrasted against students who have come from lower SES (social economic status) and NESB (non-English speaking backgrounds) where they are often the first in their families to even consider a tertiary education and have no familial academic expertise to draw on - or they are international students - the case for parents augmenting their offspring’s studies takes on a different complexion.
Tertiary institutions do (at times) recognise the inequalities of access manifest in social and economic schooling status – with one leading university recently pledging to increase admissions and access for lower SES applicants whilst also requiring donors to come forward to support their efforts. Again, such pledges do seem to have the ring and caveat of the politician’s promise about them: Guarantee immediate tax cuts once elected and when the time is right.’ Or, being deeply committed to eradicating practices of contract cheating as soon as we are able to. Ultimately, we are actually able to resolve contract cheating very quickly if we truly wish to. However, to do so would require us to make substantial changes which might have some disturbing financial implications and move away from current cherished and embedded work practices.
Rhiannon Down’s article on ghost-writers (The Australian Sept 20, 2022) further widens the perception of the potential scale of contract cheating and plagiarism in what her source suggests is a staggeringly large economy reliant upon comprehensively beating notions of academic integrity with students paying for numerous assignments (alarmingly including some studying medicine, health sciences and nursing) throughout their ‘academic’ careers. Her source claims that his services as a ghost-writer are characteristically used by students with weaker language skills.
“There are also a lot of foreign students from Malaysia, those countries that don’t have good English...” (and) “For struggling students in universities across Britain, Australia, the US, New Zealand and Canada, Assignment Joy offers academic success for as little as $120 per thousand words.”
Whilst Lauer’s article refers to marketing group assignments at one university being identified as using Assignment Joy and the majority of academic contract cheating seemingly being from Chinese students, she also highlights the spread of these activities around the world and the prevalence of international students of NESB origins being involved.
TEQSA’s task of closing access to contract cheating websites and imposing large fines on offenders is one strategy. Talk of changing student culture within universities in respect to cheating is another. The latter is an unlikely project as cultural perceptions as to what cheating is and how it is construed vary greatly around the globe. In some cultures, ‘getting caught’ is shameful but ‘getting away with it’ is not. To purchase and submit an online assignment or to augment your essay with paid assistance obviously isn’t an unintentional action or one conducted in innocence. And to many inbound students our entire university system must appear increasingly permissive when it comes to our ability and will to identify and eradicate such practices. The drive to attract paying international students to our shores is so strong (and a constant imperative within university financial discussions) there is no doubt prospective students know their value to us and that criminal behaviours relating to academic cheating will escalate as they clearly represent lucrative opportunities for those involved.
There is slippage, and according to Rhiannon Down’s report it appears that even possessing an IELTS qualification isn’t always an absolute guarantee of an individual being able to comfortably complete assignments in English. Nor, sadly, is possessing a higher degree from an Australian University (or other Universities in which study is conducted through the medium of English) always a totally reliable means for determining whether an individual’s spoken language proficiency is sufficient for tutoring or teaching purposes. Australian universities increasingly operate offshore in diverse and complex language environments in which both the universities involved and TEQSA need to consistently monitor, audit, and ensure that the highest English language standards are consistently met in order to support their students.
Rhiannon Down and Emilie Lauer’s articles speaks as much to the difficulties and temptations faced by students from non-English speaking backgrounds who maybe struggling to meet assessment standards as it does to an intent to cheat. No doubt the perennial question of ‘how did they get accepted onto a degree program?’ will be asked by some. More properly we might ask about the high revenue pressures placed upon campuses, individuals, and courses to acquire and retain viable numbers of students.
Meanwhile, as an Ernst Young report points out, (EY 16th August 2021) post COVID the increased factors of relevance, affordability, and job relatedness will continue the growth in demand for online education and the higher education multi-billion-dollar industry is firmly in the sights of the corporate sector who are eying a complete revision of how academic qualifications are provided and achieved in Australia. Online higher education is here to stay and set to grow, and smaller private providers have a significant role in enabling students by concentrating on offering a ‘cherry-picked’ (Mike Head, 19th August 2021) small number of high-quality programs rather than taking a comprehensive approach.
But the resolving of the perception of widespread student fraud and the resultant devaluing of Australian degrees needs a measured but immediate set of responses. TEQSA has recently announced its global taskforce strategy to address the cheating scourge (The Australian, 19th October 2022) and its requirement to return international students to face to face teaching for two thirds of their studies is a good start – but only if they are then assessed through real time examinations and viva voce style interactions. Contract cheating has been most used for assignments such as essays, project work, and similar – anything submitted online or in hard copy! We at UBSS suggest that the move to extensive online delivery has exacerbated the use of contract cheating but that it was with us long before COVID-19. Returning students to campus will mean little if the way universities assess students doesn’t change. And then there is the question of the many Chinese students who may not be allowed to come to Australia - how will they be assessed equitably?
THE WRONG EMPHASIS
While assignments and their fraudulent authorship have become the focus, I believe that assessment approaches and student responsibility should more properly be placed under the spotlight. Again, I suggest that the online nature of programs need not be the issue – providing assessment is re-thought. There is a major role for TEQSA or an allied external agency to play in imposing and monitoring the new measures required.
These measures might include (but are not restricted to) the following:
• Mandatory (externally monitored, audited, or moderated by TEQSA) viva voce testing for all online and on campus students.
• Examination Hall Assessments (online in real time or face to face).
• Reintroduction of cumulative assessments – testing student knowledge of all learning acquired during their 3 or 4 years of study.
• TEQSA (or an independent authority) conducting regular spot checks of domestic and international campus classrooms and lectures re- English language use and standards.
To do nothing significant or to leave it to each university to decide how to respond will surely weaken Australia’s entire higher education reputation very significantly. Face to face tuition is one aspect of ‘knowing and engaging with’ your students but to assume that it alone is a solution is, I believe, another misstep. Change the way assessments are conducted and learn to live with online delivery rather than branding the technology and COVID-19 as the cause of all evil in respect to students cheating. Online provision will continue to be the global, affordable, and accessible means of gaining education and qualifications in the future. To circle the wagons and try to return to the nostalgic days of ‘on campus only education’ is never going to be financially sustainable for the vast majority of those seeking tertiary skills and qualifications in the future.
The Australian (2022). Anti-cheat unis form international alliance ‘to fight global enemy’. (theaustralian.com.au 19th October 2022).
Tim Dodd (2022), Cheating exploded to an ‘alarming’ level at UNSW during the pandemic. News, Top Stories 5th October 2022. Campus Review.
Rhiannon Down (2022). Undercover with a ghost-writer helping uni students cheat for less than $200. 20th September 2022. The Australian.
Mike Head (2022). WSWS: Corporate blueprint predicts “death of higher education in Australia’. Mike Head @MikeHeadWSWS, 19th August 2022.
Emilie Lauer (2022). Australian education is a ‘sham’: ghost-writer sounds alarm on contract cheating, 21st Sept 2022. Campus Review.
Pula Lem (2022). India’s low-quality degrees ‘mushroom’ online, 18th Oct 2022. The Times Higher Education.
Doug Ronson (2022), Australian university pulls Ontario diploma acceptance. thepienews.com, 12th October 12, 2022. The Pie News.
EY (2021). The peak of higher education: a new world for the university of the future, 16th Aug 2021.
Jim Mienczakowski is currently a higher education advisor, a Fellow of the UBSS Centre for Scholarship and Research, a member of the UBSS Academic Senate, and an author of gripping detective novels. Formerly, he was President and CEO of Curtin University’s Malaysia campus, Executive Director of Higher Education for Abu Dhabi Government, UAE, Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research and Industry) at Victoria University, and Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Academic and Research) at Central Queensland University.