The phenomenon of ‘contract cheating’ has increased within higher education on a global scale, forcing universities to analyse their standards of academic integrity. New light was shone on cheating behaviours in Australian institutions in 2015 after the MyMaster scandal, where approximately 1,000 students were found to have hired ghost-writers to complete assignments and sit online tests on their behalf.
What exactly is ‘contract cheating’? It is basically ghost-writing but with a transactional nature – students pay a third party (whether it be friends, family, other students or an external contracting service) to complete assessments and other academic tasks, before submitting this work and claiming the credit for themselves.
A 2018 study by the Swansea University Medical School observed that approximately 31 million students worldwide admitted to paying a third party to undertake academic work for them. Further research into cheating behaviours, led by University of South Australia, found that three main factors contribute to contract cheating in Australian universities – speaking a language other than English at home, dissatisfaction with teaching and learning environments and a perception that plenty of opportunities were available to compromise academic integrity. This study also recognised that international students were disproportionately represented in cheating surveys, with unawareness of university misconduct policies and inadequate language and academic support being suggested as key explanations of this over-representation.
Plenty of solutions have been proposed by higher education experts to combat this spike in cheating behaviours. Plagiarism detection companies such as Turnitin have developed their product to introduce authorship investigation processes, where a system akin to a human marker will detect changes in an individual’s writing style to indicate the possible use of a third party writer. Redesigning assignment structure has also been raised, with educators suggesting that universities move away from essays and towards highly personalised assessments that are more difficult to outsource. Some have called for the introduction of a criminal offence to prosecute the delivery and advertisement of contract cheating services, yet it’s quite a grey area as it would potentially result in the arraignment of students as well.
Asking why students cheat in the first place is a complex question that produces a series of different answers. Contract cheating is not always a case of laziness or maliciousness; students are often desperate to achieve high marks so they are considered for further study, while others may be under the weight of cultural, societal or family expectations. Language barriers could drive international students to cheat, whereas many are simply struggling with a demanding study load and don’t know where else to go for help. ‘Essay mills’ capitalise on these factors by reframing their unethical motives as professional help, drawing in students who are not coping with their studies and selling them subpar work in return.
It is these pupils who feel the brunt of misconduct penalties. Revoking of course credits, suspension and expulsion are common punishments, while the permanent stain of cheating tarnishes their academic record. However, the reverberations of contract cheating extend far beyond the perpetrators. Other students suffer when their original work loses recognition to outsourced assignments, while the academic integrity, credibility and output of institutions are called into question by contract cheating.