Australian regulator pursues essay mills through courts

Peter Coaldrake also warns universities against ‘sleepwalking’ through Covid-induced risks to their business model

May 30, 2021
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The chief commissioner of Australia’s higher education regulator has vowed not to be “gun-shy” in pursuing essay mills in the courts – but Peter Coaldrake said his agency would have to watch its pennies.

Professor Coaldrake named “industrial-scale cheating” as one of the “emerging big threats” that the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (Teqsa) would have to address. “We’re dealing with an incredibly fast-paced sort of industry here, and one that does present a profound challenge to us collectively,” he told the Needed Now in Teaching and Learning conference.

Professor Coaldrake confirmed that the agency was already pursuing a case, using a law passed late last year, but said the process was expensive. “I asked our general counsel, ‘How much is [it] going to cost us and how many of these could we afford?’ Teqsa doesn’t have the resources to be fighting multiple cases in the federal court.”

He said that the agency would “do what we need to do, within our resources, but we’re all in this together. We’re keen to…utilise the intelligences coming through from research groups across the sector, to link up with international groups through government authorities, to do all those things.”

Teqsa has warned the sector that contract cheating companies are infiltrating university websites, on a tip-off from US researchers, and that students who accept part-time jobs promoting “online study platforms” could risk prosecution. In its most recent advisory, it shared data from Australian researchers scrutinising commercial cheating services’ global activities.

The research identified more than 2,600 potentially plagiarised assignments submitted to more than 60 institutions, including 34 universities, in Australia alone. Plagiarism detection giant Turnitin supported the project by allowing the researchers to run suspect papers through its similarity checking services.

Times Higher Education understands that the organisation Teqsa is prosecuting was identified through other means. A spokesman for the agency said that the case would “test the legislation and inform our subsequent approach”.

Needed Now conference convenor Sally Kift said Australia was fortunate that the world’s “premier assessment research centre” at Deakin University had done “exceptional work” on assessment security. Professor Coaldrake said his agency valued scholarly groups’ contributions. “We’re seeking…to share the fruits of that work.”

He added that while he was not critical of universities that had “loaded up” on international students prior to the pandemic, the crisis had “confounded” assumptions about institutional risk. “Some of the most prominent institutions will be working through the upending of their risk profiles,” he said.

“Institutions which might have been seen to be traditionally high risk – smaller, regional, less developed and so on – might actually have less risk. They’ll have different risks, but cumulatively perhaps less risk in the short term.”

He signalled that Teqsa would not move against universities with “vast risks”, so long as they had their problems “well in hand. It’s when risks are apparent but people are sleepwalking through them – that’s where you’d be concerned. I think there’d be a good less sleepwalking in the higher education space than there might have been a couple of years ago.”

Professor Coaldrake said Teqsa was considering “quite a number” of applications from institutions seeking university college status, with decisions due before July. “It’s slightly ironic that I was the person who reviewed the provider category standards and I’m now administering the application of them,” he admitted.

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