Global network formed to combat contract cheating

Members hope closer cooperation will help disrupt innovative multinational fraudsters that target and blackmail vulnerable students

October 19, 2022
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The global contract cheating industry is quick to innovate, tailoring websites to national markets and aggressively targeting the most vulnerable students using social media.

In response, a new network is aiming to better disrupt the industry by sharing intelligence on their activities and the best approaches to working with social media and payment platforms.

The Global Academic Integrity Network, founded by Quality and Qualifications Ireland (QQI) and Australia’s Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (Teqsa), aims to improve data sharing and collaboration between quality assurance and regulatory bodies.

At launch, the United Nations-backed initiative also brings together bodies from France, Hungary, Italy, South Africa, Ukraine, the UK and Zambia.

“It’s fundamentally a global problem, and higher education is thoroughly global, so there’s a limit to what you can achieve nationally when you’re up against a global enemy,” Teqsa’s Helen Gniel told Times Higher Education. A 2018 study estimated 31 million students had used such services.

Contract cheating companies, which offer anything from undergraduate admissions essays to doctoral theses and fake diplomas, market themselves as having a global workforce of writers, she said.

“There are websites that will tailor their storefront to the jurisdiction that they are being viewed from, so you might have the Irish storefront that will mention Irish institutions, which they say their essay-writers have graduated from,” said Mairéad Boland, QQI’s lead for the initiative.

National lawmakers in Australia, Ireland, New Zealand, the UK and several US states have passed legislation to disrupt commercial cheating models.

Teqsa won its first court injunction blocking the website of a foreign essay mill in 2021 and now has a streamlined system, while the UK passed a law targeting essay mill advertising in April 2022.

As well as localising their websites, the criminal enterprises make aggressive use of social media to target vulnerable students, said Ms Boland, such as by directly messaging those who join autism or ADHD support groups.

“We’ve heard from students that they will get targeted messaging from these cheating organisations saying ‘Oh my gosh, you’ve got ADHD, university must be so tough, we can do your assignments for you,’” she said.

“It’s really insidious, framed in language that they’re there to help and the student is doing nothing wrong by engaging with them.”

While pairs of agencies have informally shared information on cheating websites and the best ways to work with social media companies, the network aims to do so collectively and on a grander scale.

Ms Boland said it will increase awareness of contract cheating among quality assurance agencies, qualification bodies and academic recognition organisations, which will in turn boost network membership.

Nationally, QQI runs workshops with higher education staff and students through an academic integrity network, which she said also helps develop common language to describe contract cheating, something which could now happen globally.

Anti-cheating efforts have tended to focus on the front end of commercial websites, but in future regulators want to work more closely with the platforms that handle payments for cheating services.

As well as taking payments for cheating, criminals are increasingly extorting even greater sums from their customers down the line.

“It’s really important that students understand that the risk or the threat of blackmail doesn’t go away when you graduate, it escalates, because then you actually have more to lose,” said Dr Gniel.

Criminals trying to make good on threats sometimes send evidence directly to Teqsa in the mistaken belief the agency has the power to strip awards from students, she said, while its actual role is to enable civil or criminal prosecution of cheating providers.

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Reader's comments (1)

Universities need to be more robust with students who patronise such services- expel them when detected. There is no excuse, no way students can pass off such blatent cheating with claims of not knowing it was wrong. It's not like failing to reference correctly - that's bad enough, but you can be taught to do it right.