By Cath Ellis

Contract cheating is one of the most significant problems currently facing higher education.

It is a form of plagiarism where a student gets someone else – another student, a friend, a family member, someone they’ve found via social media or on an online app – to do their assessment work for them and then submits it to their educational institution as if it were their own work. While some students are paying others for this service, in most instances money doesn’t change hands. Instead an economy of favours or obligations is fuelling it least some of these transactions.

From the point of view of the students who are doing this, the ‘success’ of this form of cheating is a result of the fact that it is difficult to detect. Text matching tools – such as Turnitin – are designed to identify copy/paste plagiarism by matching a student’s written work with other texts. Low detection rates are also a product of the fact that there is low awareness amongst academic teaching staff about the problem and our ability to know how to identify instances of contract cheating is consequently very poor.

In Australia our general awareness level is probably much higher than in other sectors as a result of the so-called ‘MyMaster scandal’ which was the result of an investigative piece in the Fairfax press in late November 2014. Similarly, awareness levels in New Zealand have increased as a result of the Assignments4U case which has been in the press again recently.

Even so, in both countries it is likely that a lot of teaching academics have little more than a vague sense that some students are contract cheating but do not know to call it that. Many academics I speak to about the problem assume that it is rare because they believe that it is expensive and therefore something that most students couldn’t afford. My concern is that too many staff have a false sense of confidence that it can be addressed effectively with teaching, learning and assessment that is well designed and engaging.

Since the MyMaster scandal, I have devoted a lot of time and energy to understanding how and why contract cheating is happening, and to share with others my thoughts on the problem contract cheating represents for our students, for our institutions, and ultimately, for society as a whole.

Far from being rare, contract cheating is actually quite common. Recent research I have published with my colleagues in Studies in Higher Education shows that around 6% of student respondents to our survey admitted to engaging in one or more contract cheating behaviours. While it is certainly a minority of students, with Australian institutions routinely graduating thousands of students each year, it is not really something that can be considered rare.

It’s also not particularly expensive. With the advent of eCommerce, software as a service (SAAS), and companies like PayPal facilitating international foreign currency transactions, a new industry has emerged. It is truly global with companies running out of places like Kenya, the Philippines, India, and Ukraine, as well as the UK and the USA providing contract-cheating services to students studying all around the world. These countries have a large supply of well-educated, underemployed people who can churn out good-enough academic work quickly and cheaply. The Assignments4U case in New Zealand shows this industry is even operating here.

While there is certainly a range of premium providers in this industry, it’s also possible to pay as little as USD$75 for an eight-page essay in business, humanities, or social sciences which is due in a week. Our research has also shown, however, that most students who are engaging in contract cheating behaviours are not paying for it at all, but using the services of students, former students, family and friends.

My analysis of the business models operating in at least some of these sites (which was published in the International Journal of Educational Integrity earlier this year) demonstrates that they have surprisingly sophisticated business processes; this suggests that they are servicing a mature market. A quick Google search will easily demonstrate the sheer volume of companies already operating as well as the methods they use to persuade students to use their services.

There is growing evidence that an even more troubling phenomenon is now emerging: blackmail. In this scam, the primary objective is not the writing fee, but to extort regular payments by threatening to use evidence of an order to expose contract cheating behaviours to the student’s institution.

The low level of awareness amongst academic staff is hardly surprising. Cheating, in all forms, is by its very nature duplicitous and covert. Most academics expect the best from their students, not the worst.

This lack of awareness, however, needs to be addressed as matter of urgency. Teaching staff are our most important form of detection. Educators who are responsible for reading and marking student work need to be aware of the problem, but also to know what to look for and how to report any concerns that they identify. Institutions also need to consider the structural and operational adjustments that are required to address better the challenges this form of cheating represents. As a form of plagiarism, contract cheating presents a differently shaped problem to the copy/paste plagiarism which previously prevailed and for which text-matching software, such as Turnitin, provides such an effective detection solution. For most institutions we are well set up to deal with cheating circa 2005; we’re probably not well set up to dealing with cheating circa 2018.

While we may feel that the situation is hopeless, there is much that we can do. First, we need to arm ourselves with information: we need to raise awareness of the problem and build a desire to work together as educators and as institutions. Then we need to improve our detection skills so that we can identify instances of contract cheating and ensure that students engaging in this behaviour don’t unfairly benefit from it. Finally, we need to work more closely with our students to deter them from engaging in this kind of behaviour in the first place. To do this we need to talk about it with them and allow them to come to an understanding of not just the personal risks some students are taking when they engage in contract cheating, but also the real and present public risk that this behaviour constitutes for everyone. Whether it be nurses, engineers, primary school teachers, or human resource managers, we need to be confident that everyone who graduates with a qualification from an educational institution has met the learning outcomes that assure their capacity to undertake their professional duties safely and with integrity.

Contract cheating is a challenging problem to solve, but solve it we must for there are significant issues at stake. Not least of these is the good reputation of the entire educational industry around the world.

Cath Ellis is the Associate Dean of Education in the School of the Arts and Media at the University of New South Wales Sydney. She is an expert in higher education studies. 

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article reflect the author’s opinion and not necessarily the views of The Big Q.