Alarm grows over cheating services in Australia

Complaints about essay mills peaked as online delivery concerns subsided, regulator’s report says

April 7, 2021
Sorrento, Italy - June 12, 2017 Painted wooden marionette dolls of the figure of Pinocchio in a souvenir shop in Sorrento. Italy. Pinocchio's long nose symbolised a lie.
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Reports of essay mills mushroomed in Australia after parliament passed legislation to outlaw the provision and promotion of contract cheating services, according to a first-of-its-kind report from the higher education regulator.

The Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (Teqsa) fielded 23 complaints about commercial cheating services in 2020 – more than four times the previous year’s tally. Most were lodged late in the year, following the regulator’s “outreach” to publicise its new Higher Education Integrity Unit.

While the unit will have a role in battling cybersecurity, foreign interference and research fraud, director Helen Gniel said academic cheating would be its initial focus. “We’re really keen to drive forward and make use of the new legislative powers,” she said.

Dr Gniel’s interest in academic integrity – cultivated when she was a biology coordinator at the Australian National University – was fuelled during stints as a Teqsa case manager and quality and standards adviser at Monash University. A neuroscientist by training, she described integrity as the “moral code” of academia, underpinning the credibility of degrees and the reputation of their conferrers.

Public concerns about contract cheating took over from widely expressed grievances over the sector’s Covid-induced online migration, according to Teqsa’s inaugural compliance report. It chronicles eight months of discontent caused mainly by the shift to remote teaching, after the regulator was inundated with “material change notifications” about changed delivery arrangements in March last year.

Complaints rose by 36 per cent compared to 2019 figures, driven by a 300 per cent spike in protests over course delivery. While complaints about student services also increased, gripes about governance, tuition and refunds were less common than in 2019.

The complaints peaked at about 70 in April but subsided to fewer than 30 by December, with grievance numbers below 2019 figures for the last quarter of the year.

The report also shows that while universities and colleges undertook “significant work” to improve their admissions processes, this failed to assuage concerns about foreign students arriving with inadequate English language skills.

Teqsa investigated six institutions that had attracted unfavourable media coverage over the language skills of their students, and extended the probe to another four “at potential risk of non-compliance”. The analysis uncovered a “universal” reliance on language tests other than the universities’ prescribed assessments, with universities unable to explain why they had accepted alternative evaluations.

Universities also confused the term “waiver” – where students were assumed to have adequate language skills because they had spoken English at home or school – with qualification “equivalence”. Institutions were unable to demonstrate how their student performance monitoring and cohort analysis were being harnessed to improve admissions procedures, the report added, while some governing councils lacked oversight of admissions procedures.

Despite this, Teqsa imposed 40 conditions last year on the registration or course accreditation of universities and other institutions – marginally fewer than in 2019.

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