Mums and dads ‘bigger problem’ than essay mills

Prominence of gratis services causes ‘uneasiness’ among researchers, as Australia eyes law against contract cheating

November 29, 2019
Source: Getty

After Australia’s higher education regulator declared it would not pursue innocent parents over contract cheating allegations, a conference heard that parents were the biggest problem.

Academic integrity expert Cath Ellis said friends and family comprised the largest category of academic cheating service provision. They were followed by custom writing sites; “legitimate learning sites” such as file-sharing websites; “legitimate non-learning sites” such as eBay, Facebook and odd jobs market Airtasker; and paid exam takers.

“That’s the size order of the problem, based on my own research,” Dr Ellis told the conference of Australia’s Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency, adding that unpaid cheating services had just as serious consequences as commercial ones. “Payment isn’t an issue when we’re talking about contract cheating.”

The previous day, TEQSA chief executive Anthony McClaran – who nominated contract cheating as one of four focus areas for the agency – had insisted that the regulator had no intention of prosecuting “innocent mums, dads and other close relatives” if Canberra’s proposed anti-cheating legislation was enacted.

Mr McClaran advocated information-sharing between institutions and regulators to address commercial cheating services, which were insidious, sophisticated and “flagrantly” advertised.

Dr Ellis, associate dean of education at UNSW Sydney, supported TEQSA’s partnership approach. But she said the people tasked with implementing Australia’s proposed legislation, and Irish legislation passed in July, would have to “think through” how to deal with cheating that involved family and friends.

In recent Australian research, more than 800 students had admitted to using at least one type of cheating service. “We asked them where they procured it, and the highest proportion came from friends, family, students and former students,” she told Times Higher Education.

She said that overlooking this category could inadvertently target socio-economically disadvantaged cheats while letting wealthier ones off the hook. “If they’re studying law and daddy’s a lawyer, they know somebody who can help them. We need to think through the inequalities of that,” Dr Ellis said.

“If we get this legislation, elements [about] how we put it into use are causing some uneasiness. Those of us who know a lot about what the students have told us about their behaviours, we’re a bit worried – also, those of us who’ve done research into how these companies work.

“It’s likely that contract cheating providers are employing students as agents within higher education institutions. At what point do they become part of a commercial enterprise that this legislation is designed to go after?”

Dr Ellis said she would be appalled if the legislation deterred friends and family from brainstorming an essay or offering punctuation guidance. “But if you’re planning or writing the work for your child; if you’re doing the research for your friend; if you’re sitting the exam online for a member of the rugby club; you’ve definitely crossed the line,” she said.

Dr Ellis said that while exam proxies were most likely to involve change of money, that was no worse than gratis cheating. “I’m a teacher, and I go back to first principles. Have students met the learning outcomes, and how have they demonstrated that? If they’ve done it through cheating, it doesn’t matter how. It’s not acceptable because they haven’t done the learning.”

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Reader's comments (1)

So, if a law cannot be fairly applied, DON’T pass that law