University of Sydney
University of Sydney has asked staff to 'suggest' how to cut up to 30% of jobs in some faculties.

Things are heating up for uni cheats. Education Minister Dan Tehan has brought in hard-hitting new legislation targeting “contract cheating” providers who write assignments for university students, saying they will face up to two years in jail and a fine up to a $210,000. 

Why so harsh? Like so many other law and order issues, the punishment is supposed to “provide a visible and meaningful deterrence” to those seeking to make money this way, as the legislation overview states. 

What’s actually going on?

The term “contract cheating” was coined in 2006, in a University of Central England paper identifying it as a possible “successor” to plagiarism, hitherto the primary concern in academic honesty among students.

In mid November 2014, the issue of contract cheating exploded, with revelations that an online business called MyMaster was netting hundreds of thousands of dollars producing thousands of assignments and online tests for students at Australian universities.

This was the first in a series of academic honesty scandals, most recently the “Airtasker scandal” wherein students used the gig economy platform to pay for essays. Indeed, Airtasker, Fiverr and Upwork still offer essay writing services, with dozens of Facebook groups dedicated to essay and dissertation writing services. 

Does the legislation make sense?

The draft bill would make providing any part of a piece of work or assignment, sitting an exam or providing answers for an exam an offence. But this vague wording could see helpful colleagues targeted, says National Union of Students national president Desiree Cai. 

“Students, tutors, family or friends or who have helped too much could be affected. The legislation needs to be made more specific to commercial contractors,” she says. 

Determining the line between legitimate study support services and cheating activity have been highlighted as an issue by stakeholders for universities. 

Who gets the blame?

Students who cheat will not be targeted under the draft legislation, with laws relying on universities’ own sanctions and integrity policies. But universities have been historically soft-handed when dealing with fee-paying students who cheat. When 36 students at Macquarie University were found to use ghostwriting services in 2015, the only punishment implemented was a dreary “ethics assessment”

University of Melbourne’s deputy Vice-Chancellor Professor Richard James says cheating and plagiarism was “unacceptable”, saying the university worked to make sure “students understand the importance of academic integrity”. 

“We are particularly supportive of the government focusing on the interventions that universities are not able to undertake themselves, such as targeting commercial contract cheating providers,” he tells Crikey. Websites which publish cheating ads, both nationally and internationally, could be blocked under the new laws and subject to punishment. 

Cai says students who deliberately and actively searched out ghostwriters and others to take their exams for them should not be held legally accountable. 

“Universities are the ones who manage all breaches of academic integrity and are the best to deal with breaches,” she says, adding all penalties and sanctions should be proportionate and on a case-by-case basis. 

Why are things getting so bad?

TEQSA, the university and TAFE regulator, recently put out a practice note on how to protect integrity. It situates academic misconduct in the context of “an increasingly commercialised, internationalised and highly competitive higher education sector”.

Indeed, a two-year, government funded project on academic integrity concluded that “the commercialisation of higher education”, and constant uncertainty about funding, had created “a perfect storm” for the proliferation of contract cheating.

Intense competition at all levels, a dependence on international student revenue, and a focus on retention and graduate employability have contributed to compromised teaching and learning environments. Facing precarious job markets after graduation, and positioned as fee-paying “customers”, many students are taking “transactional” approaches to learning, with some outsourcing their work altogether. The findings from this project provide clear evidence that contract cheating is a systemic problem that requires a sector-wide response.

The study interviewed 1147 staff members and just over 14 thousand students across eight universities — the transactional nature of higher education was a recurring theme. One staff member argued that “the upsurge in third-party cheating is due to students’ perception of university degrees as a commercial transaction due to university management’s focus on the business of education, such that marketing of university ‘products’ becomes more important than the education process itself”. 

One student agreed that university was seen less about acquiring knowledge, and more “as a user-pays system to get the degree. The degree will get the job, or the extended visa for the masters, the job, etc … It’s about getting passes, getting through the process — hence, little attachment to the ethics of cheating …” 

Cai agrees that the rise in contract cheating is thanks to the commercialisation of academia. To combat cheats, she says, universities must change their approach to education. 

“Increasingly, universities are being seen as degree factories and service providers. Students are seen as consumers over learners.” 

Peter Fray

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