When a student roams a university campus, they might see stickers on the back of bathroom stall doors. Pamphlets dropped at eating areas. Postcards floating around common spaces and posters wrapped around telegraph poles. All selling what might look to be homework help or tutoring. They’re on Facebook, Instagram, in direct messages. If they manage to get your email address, there’ll be spam there too.
Only some of these services do more than help. They do the work itself. In other words, it’s contract cheating.
“It’s, like, everywhere,” says Nayonika Bhattacharya, a sixth-year law student and president of the University of NSW student representative council.
It’s even more prevalent at orientation weeks, which are mostly attended by teenagers fresh out of high school, Bhattacharya says. “You’ll see a lot of people casually floating around,” she says, “and if you’re unsuspecting, they will casually get out of you what course you’re taking and just market that. ‘Oh, I’m doing that course as well and I struggled as well. This is something I used. Do you want to try it?’”
Contract cheating is when a student has a third party complete an assessment on their behalf. It might mean a “tutor” writing a whole essay, an online service completing a tricky exam question – or an exam. In extreme cases it could include a student paying someone else to sit a whole course or even an entire degree. It is not a new phenomenon, but in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic’s disruption to higher education, and the young people in it, contract cheating is said to have grown around the world.
This is a massive industry. It’s a highly sophisticated industry. It’s a very mature industry
Since last year, the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (Teqsa) has blocked access to 152 websites suspected of targeting Australian students for cheating. The university regulator has 580 sites on its priority list. Experts at a conference in the UK earlier this year warned of the “normalisation” of buying essays from contract cheating sites. Even during the HSC there was a 25% increase in reports of cheating.
Prof Cath Ellis, a UNSW researcher focused on cheating, says there has always been a minority – about 6-10% – of students who turn to cheating. Her research into contract cheating suggests the practice (and industry) goes back to the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Researchers such as Ellis are sceptical about whether this apparent boom can be attributed to an increase in cheating or simply improved detection. While Dr Guy Curtis, from the University of Western Australia, is sceptical, he says that conditions for cheating over the pandemic years were certainly ripe: increased opportunity via online assessment, increased dissatisfaction with courses and the well-documented mental health and financial strains on young people.
Those conditions are the push. Then there is the pull.
About 10 years ago there was a shift in the way the contract cheating industry operated. International payments became easier via systems like PayPal and the software-as-a-service sector boomed, says Ellis, prompting the “offshoring” of the industry to such places as Kenya, India and the Philippines. “We’ve seen a bubble of that kind of provision since,” she says.
“This is a massive industry. It’s a highly sophisticated industry. It’s a very mature industry. It functions a lot like big industries,” says Ellis. “What that should be telling us loud and clear is that it’s servicing a very, very big market and students can see this too and they must be growing increasingly frustrated and concerned about the volume of cheating going on around them.”
Bhattacharya is frustrated. It is a tiny minority who cheat, she says, but some have been friends. As an SRC member, she is obliged to report them and has done so.
But the cheating story doesn’t end at detection. What happens after someone is caught cheating? If universities are places of learning and building integrity, might a disciplinary procedure offer the opportunity to do both? What would an efficient, productive – even compassionate – process look like?
Between 2019 and 2021, the number of students caught cheating at UNSW increased from 1,116 to 2,551. Detected cases of contract cheating between 2020 and 2021 rose by 162%. Before 2019, students suspected of cheating would receive a strongly worded letter and it was a litigious, adversarial system, says Prof George Williams, a constitutional lawyer and a deputy vice-chancellor at UNSW. Students would often lawyer up.
“The process was: we’ll hit you with a long allegation letter, [the student is] on the back foot. They’re in a defensive mindset. They often will fight at every stage through to appeal – even if they know they’ve done wrong,” he says.
Then, in 2019, Williams and his team established Courageous Conversations, a program based on restorative justice principles. Students are asked why they cheated and to reflect on the impact their actions had on themselves and others, but also about their circumstances. Specially trained facilitators have one-on-one conversations with students alleged to have engaged in misconduct, and penalties still apply – students may get zero for an assessment, fail a course or even be expelled – but they take place as part of a broader discussion about the gravity, cause and consequence of their actions.
“The process itself is designed to teach; to recognise that people do make mistakes, but if they learn, they develop, they still have the potential to go on,” says Williams. “Sometimes those who make a mistake and learn from it are actually the people who come out with the most integrity.”
The impact of Courageous Conversations has been substantial. Two out of every three students brought into a conversation admit fault right away. The average time it takes to process the cases has reduced from 69 days per student in the old system to just 25.
That time difference is critical for students, says Williams, because in these conversations the university has found a high correlation between students in mental health or financial distress and those who are caught cheating. The program directs students to financial or mental health services. In short, it addresses the cause while punishing the behaviour.
“We shouldn’t kid ourselves and say we can deal with all the causes of cheating. But it’s our job to respond to it and try to set up structures and processes that remove the incentive to cheat, better ethical standards, and deal with it in a compassionate but firm way,” he says.
“We’ve got to ask ourselves: what do we want out of all this? We’re not out for retribution. This isn’t a criminal justice system.”
If a contract cheating firm had approached Bhattacharya in her first year, she says she would have been curious. “I would have thought, ‘Do these things help?’ In my head I would have been, like, this looks like a tutoring service. Why are you writing it for me? In my first year I wouldn’t have thought that there was anything wrong with it because I didn’t understand the significance of plagiarism, I didn’t understand the significance of collusion.”
That naivety passes. By the end of first year, she says, things become more clear. If you know someone who is cheating and hasn’t been caught, “I’d be tempted to be like, ‘Holy shit, I want to give this a go as well.’ Why would I not?”
The good thing for Bhattacharya, she says, is that it didn’t happen that way. Their law lecturers told students that these services so overwhelmingly marketed to them constituted contract cheating and if they were caught, they wouldn’t be admitted into the legal profession. “I was like, ‘OK, cool. Stay the fuck away from this, right? I want to be a lawyer. This is bad.”
In fact, everyone knows that cheating is bad, says Bhattacharya. “The weird part is no one knows what cheating is any more.”
The confusion and the disruption caused by the shift to online learning meant, she says, that students were unclear about when checking with a friend constituted collusion; or whether looking up an answer on a tutoring site constituted contract cheating; or they are drawn to something that looks like tutoring and find themselves submitting work they paid someone else to do.
She supports the Courageous Conversations program and says it removes the perception that, by disciplining a student, “the university has ruined this person’s life”.
And the fear of university discipline is real. While difficult to quantify, concern is rife about contract cheating companies blackmailing their student clients – threatening to dob them in to their institution if they don’t pay more money. Ellis says there is suggestion that for some contract cheating companies, the revenue from extortion is greater than the revenue from doing the work. In a survey by Curtin University in 2020, nearly 70% of students so feared being found out by their university that they said it would be preferable to be blackmailed.
As the world grapples with what to do about cheating, eyes are on UNSW and Courageous Conversations. The program was recently cited in the UK House of Commons and the University of Galway in Ireland this year established its own program that it says is directly inspired by UNSW, which it acknowledged as being experts in the field. Williams says the university is in conversations with other institutions about adopting the program.
Australia generally is seen to have the reputation as a leader in regulation, detection and action on cheating, having first grappled with a major contract cheating scandal in 2014. Teqsa co-founded the Global Academic Integrity Network last month and moves by UWA last year to offer students who uploaded course content to tutoring sites an amnesty were similarly lauded as a progressive approach to an international issue.
But while Australia may be leading, there is no university in the world detecting cheating at the rate surveys suggest is going on, says Ellis. Curtis estimates 95% of cheating students are not caught.
Says Ellis: “We have to accept that we are graduating a bundle of students who are going out there into the world of work who haven’t done all, most or even any of the assessment tasks of their degrees.”
The risk – to society, to the reputation and purpose of universities themselves – needs little explanation.
Next year, as students return to classrooms full-time from primary school to university, says Williams, there is a window to break the cycle of alienation, confusion, distress, disinterest and cheating.
“If we saw these numbers in 10 years’ time, I’ll be saying, ‘Well, we went through the pandemic, we didn’t respond appropriately and the culture took hold’.”
For Williams, the key is a return to a room shared between students and teachers. He knows, as a lecturer, that when he is in a classroom, “talking to students, eyeballing students, talking about plagiarism, right and wrong – that’s effective. A lot of teaching is about setting down basic values of integrity, ethical standards and the like, and it’s hard to do that online.”
The bonds that connect us, the social contract we form sitting side by side in a room together, were strained for the past few years. Now is the time, he says, to stitch them back together.