Essay mills quit Australia as UK falls behind but Covid a threat

Experts are optimistic at signs of success from new Australian bill, but warn pandemic has added new problems to fight against contract cheating

November 18, 2020
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A number of big-name essay mills have retreated from Australia since legislation which outlawed contract cheating came into force, highlighting how countries including the UK risk falling behind, but the switch to distance learning during the pandemic could stymie further progress.

The new legislation, which came into effect at the beginning of September, has made it an offence to provide, arrange or advertise academic cheating services. Those caught doing so face up to two years in jail or fines of up to A$100,000 (£55,270).

It has led to “big name” essay mills, as well as lots of smaller sites, ending their operations in Australia. Experts in the country told Times Higher Education that this was a positive sign but warned that, particularly with more online assessments and students learning at a distance, it would not end all contract cheating in the country.

“The new legislation and integrity unit have upped the ante somewhat and a number of significant contract cheating companies have pulled down the shutters,” said Cath Ellis, associate dean of education at UNSW Sydney. “Having said that, there are still lots of companies that are trading on.”

It would be interesting to see whether a new integrity unit created to help with the implementation of the new legislation will be able to successfully pursue prosecutions or use the federal injunction powers it has been granted to block advertising, she said.

Jedidiah Evans, an associate lecturer in writing studies at University of Sydney, agreed that contract cheating websites were now harder to access in Australia, but warned that the perceived over-representation of international students in contract cheating cases was a continuing concern, given that Covid-19 restrictions meant that there were “huge numbers of students studying offshore”.

“I’ve already received at least one piece of work that has come via a ‘preparatory college’, which is in reality a coaching service run out of Shanghai. I suspect we’ll see more of this kind of work,” Dr Evans said.

Despite this, he believed the legislation will emphasise the seriousness of contract cheating to learners. “Students are no longer accessing dishonest help but ‘criminal’ help. And it will be nice to stymie an industry that is vulturous at best,” Dr Evans said.

Michael Draper, professor of legal studies at Swansea University, whose research is cited in the Australian legislation, said similar success had been seen in parts of Europe, particularly in the Republic of Ireland, where some websites have also ceased operating.

In the UK, however, these sites can still be accessed, and it was at risk of falling behind. “[The UK is] now out of step. Without legislation we are indirectly saying that it is OK to use essay mills here,” he said.

The most recent attempt to make contract cheating illegal in the UK was frustrated by the 2019 election and increased guidance and media campaigns have not been effective enough, Professor Draper said.

The increase in online assessment caused by the coronavirus pandemic has made the issue even more pertinent, he added.

“Students are being bombarded with messages that come across as incredibly supportive. They are in isolation, they are under pressure and they are being targeted,” Professor Draper said. “One way we can stop that is by making essay mills illegal. We need legislation.”

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Reader's comments (1)

The problem is, how can you possibly make writing and selling essays illegal? How can the law be crafted so as to allow legitimate researchers who seek to profit from writing, say, concise annotated condensations of existing works and yet prevent work crafted for the sole purpose of cheating?