Tracey Bretag is not quite elated, but she’s pretty damn excited. As Australia’s foremost expert on contract cheating, she was greeted with news on Monday morning that the government hopes to introduce legislation with strong penalties, including up to two years’ jail time or fines of $200,000 for offering services that allow students to, well, cheat.
“It’s not a solution in and of itself,” Bretag says. “It’s just one thing we can do, but it is definitely a step in the right direction.”
Bretag says that by making the provision of contract cheating services illegal, it sends a strong signal to those providing such services and also signals to PayPal and online advertising platforms such as Google and YouTube that they can’t accept advertising from essay mills and the like. It’d be almost like accepting advertising from a speed dealer.
It’s interesting to see that Australia has opted for the very-big-stick approach, in contrast to the UK. When Damian Hinds last month called on PayPal to block payments and tech giants to remove ads, he used some pretty strong language but in terms of effectiveness it was more a case of being whipped by a feather than the rustic limb of a tree.
The personal approach
Just how effective would the proposed legislation be?
The approach has been modelled on New Zealand which introduced similar legislation back in 2011.
Since then New Zealand has had just one case, from what I can see, under which an essay mill had police charges laid. It’s hard to know whether the legislation has acted as a deterrent for contract cheating outfits or simply pushed them underground. But the power of the legislation was never fully revealed because the case was settled under the Criminal Proceeds Recovery Act with the owners opting to forfeit over $2m.
As Bretag says, legislation with big teeth is just one string to the anti-cheating bow. Assignment and test design are important, as are strong institutional culture and policies and lecturers and tutors setting clear expectations.
“All our research shows one of the most constructive factors in combating cheating is when there are good relationships between academic staff and students – when they get to know each other” Bretag says.
“If you have 35 students in one tutorial, or if a tutorial only lasts for 50 minutes, teachers are not going to get to know their students and vice versa. Universities need to be resourced to allow for that, especially where international students are concerned.”
A cheat sheet
Monday’s announcement has been a long time coming. The government originally commissioned a report into contract cheating way back in 2015 when Christopher Pyne was still Education Minister. Last week he gave his valedictory speech in which he regaled Parliament about how he once had to pick his own lemon for his G&T. It was actually hilarious.
The report was a response to a huge scandal back in 2104 involving a company called MyMaster which brazenly marketed its services – mainly to international students – to ghost write articles and sit online tests. A whopping 1000 students from 16 universities got caught up in the sordid affair.
Bretag’s research has found that between 6-10% of students cheat and it’s more prevalent among international students who have language barriers, social isolation and family expectations all feeding into a pass-at-any-cost approach
Bretag and colleague Rowena Harper, both from the University of South Australia, surveyed 14,086 students and 1,147 staff for the federal government’s Contract Cheating and Assessment Design project.
The goal was to collect and understand student’s perceptions of the likelihood of cheating on 13 different assessment tasks. The research then asked teaching staff which of the 13 tasks they used.
Their research confirms the relationship between contract cheating and assessment design is a complex one. There was no assessment tasks for which students reported a 0% likelihood of contract cheating. Students who engage in contract cheating both see and look for opportunities to cheat regardless of the assessment task.
For universities, that means they must assume cheating is always possible and simply changing what assessments they use will not combat the problem.
Burdened with large debts and facing a precarious job market after graduation, it’s perhaps unsurprising some students, particularly those who are struggling academically, take a transactional approach to their education.
The government, probably wisely, dismissed a recommendation from the Higher Education Standards Panel report which proposed a standard statement of commitment to academic integrity for all students to sign.
Bretag says such a proposal is effectively a toothless tiger: it would carry little weight. Students already sign a statement every time they hand in an assignment confirming it is their own original work. There are plenty of other university policies also in place. Bretag also says that the legislation will flag to essay mills that there is a possibility of conviction, but it won’t have any impact whatsoever on overseas outfits – which is where the PayPal and online advertising restrictions play a role.
She also says that many of these companies trade in a grey zone so it is very difficult to establish whether they are essay mills or real study support services – or what’s legitimate and what’s cheating.
Feedback to the HESP also noted that there was growing evidence of instances of blackmail students who had accessed contract cheating services, which given the vulnerability of many international students is a terrifying thought.
Smells like distraction
Of course, the politics of the announcement are difficult to avoid. It’s taken four long years for the report to be finalised and for the government to act on it. Education Minister Dan Tehan made the announcement on the same day that the national literacy and numeracy testing results were revealed – showing that literacy in Australia is going backwards particularly during the secondary school years.
Others claimed it was a distraction from the government’s freedom of speech report that found there was no crisis on campuses and from the lack of anything very much for higher education in last week’s budget.
Bretag says she hopes, should Labor win the May election, that it move forward with the legislation. To that end, I asked Tanya Plibersek’s office whether Labor would push ahead with the legislation should it win the election, to which a spokesman said they hadn’t seen the draft legislation so couldn’t give a definitive answer.
Speaking on ABC radio, Plibersek said: “Any measures to reduce cheating are very important. It’s important to our international reputation, it’s important for students but truly this smells like distraction.”
The ten per cent
Toward the end of our chat, I ask Bretag – who is at home marking essays – if students ever try to cheat in her course. Because that would be incredibly stupid.
Indeed they do. “I’ve got 32 students in my course and during the current assignment I’ve identified that three that are probably outsourced. Our research found 6-10% of students are outsourcing and here it is.”
She stresses that her university is no different from any other. But she says it is pretty devastating for her personally having taken over the second year business communications course at the beginning of the year and having put in a huge amount of effort in developing the content and assessments to be as cheat-proof as humanly possible.
She adds that not many academics are as hyper-aware as she is and able to identify outsourced assignments.
“Most just think it’s just a crap essay. But there are several identifying elements that suggest it’s been outsourced, such as being well written but highly generic.”
And, for the record, Bretag is most concerned that this anecdote will suggest that UniSA is an epicentre for cheating. If anything, the opposite is true. With the country’s foremost experts on tap, it is a beacon of best practice.