Time to tackle the cheating profiteers

For reasons which seem to be more about finding ways to criticise than support universities, some politicians and parts of the media seem to be excessively interested in looking at issues which are really very far from being concerns on campuses. Such as freedom of speech.

Moreover, relentless public critique of our own system is, as Diana Beech has recently observed, not a great way to promote UKHE to prospective students and partners around the world.

There is though still a huge international educational challenge which the HE sector in the UK has to address and other nations have to respond to as well. We commented here a while back about the positive step taken by PayPal in deciding not to provide services for the essay mill providers.

This modest development has yet to be matched by more significant action in the UK. Meanwhile in Australia, the government has introduced proposed legislation which, when passed, would give TEQSA, the country’s quality agency, more powers to address the cheats:

“The Bill would give TEQSA additional powers and tools to combat contract cheating services, and further support the sector to do so. TEQSA is currently supporting providers to promote and protect cultures of academic integrity, create institutional responses to breaches, and we have published a good practice note for the sector.”

The draft legislation is aimed at those who provide cheating services, and not at students. Students who cheat will continue to be subject to institutions’ own academic integrity policies, processes and academic sanctions. These institutional policies are not affected by the new legislation.

Although I’m very much against new regulation in general and feel there is too great a burden at present, this is one case where a genuine crackdown would be welcome. It would be great therefore if the new UK Minister for higher education saw this as a priority area for legislation.

A global cheating industry

Even if the UK were to follow Australia though we still have a very long way to go though as this recent report on cheating services in Kenya shows.

The story quotes a writer called Philemon who provides essays to order from Kenya. He doesn’t like to call it “cheating”, preferring the terms “academic writer” and “online tutor.” Of course he does. It is cheating though, however the service is described. The article also notes that Thomas Lancaster, one of the UK experts in this area, has estimated that the global contract cheating industry is worth more than $1 billion, but academic writers in Kenya typically see a small share of it:

“The contracting industry takes the elephant’s share of the money,” said Charles, an academic writer in Kenya for more than 10 years who also asked that his full name not be used.
Websites promoting tutoring services and homework help serve as middlemen between students seeking to outsource their work and academic writers seeking cash. In much the same way as eBay or Craigslist, students set up online profiles that keep their identities anonymous and post details about their homework assignments, from the number of pages to the due date.

According to Philemon, these websites can take more than 30% of the cut for a commission. Charles vouched for that, saying that in his experience, if a student is willing to pay $40 per page for an essay, a Kenyan writer might only receive $6. For experienced writers like Charles, the ambition is to get rid of the middleman completely by establishing direct relationships with clients that continue throughout college.

It’s a cynical and exploitative business which corrupts everyone who touches it.

The tech approach

Whilst TurnItIn remains the weapon of choice for detecting plagiarism, it is extremely limited in its ability to address the cheating to order work provided via essay mills. An alternative technological solution has been developed by Georgia Tech which has recently deployed a bot aimed at detecting such activity:

The GT bot infiltrates cheating sites—of which there are hundreds—and poses as a for-hire writer and homework cheater, bidding on work offered up by Georgia Tech students who want to pay for their work to be done by someone else. When a GT student picks the bot to do their work, the bot sends the student a professor-crafted assignment with a secret “watermark.” If the student submits the work with the scarlet letter, they are caught.

Some have observed this looks rather like entrapment. Whilst you could argue that the cheats have already compromised their integrity by purchasing essays it nevertheless feels strange to be tackling corruption in such an underhand and arguably rather ethically dubious way.

The article indicates only a small number of student cheats have been identified so far, and therefore whatever one thinks of the ethics of the approach, we need something more than bots given the scale of the challenge.

Legislation to address corruption

Philip Newton, in a recent systematic review, noted that many as one in seven students admitted to paying someone else to do their academic work.

This is an extraordinary proportion and undermines the fundamental integrity of higher education. Taking on such a huge business involving a large number of students in the UK around the world is not going to be easy. It has to be tackled if we are to address the central lie at the heart of this cynical, exploitative essay mill business that somehow this is all about providing a service for students and is not at all about cheating.

Essay mills and the charlatans who run them often say they want to work with universities but their business model is founded on making profit from corrupting the assessment process and profiting from the vulnerabilities and anxieties of students. They bring shame to our sector and have to be stopped.

Technology is a part of the package perhaps but the real need is for legislation to deal with these corrupting, sinister, profiteering, exploitative essay mills. So, new Minister, new laws please. Let’s put a stop to these shady operations for good.

4 responses to “Time to tackle the cheating profiteers

  1. I would add that contract cheating sites augment their unethical earnings by extorting extra payments from their student customers by threatening to report them to their universities.

  2. In case it’s of interest, I went ‘undercover’ and used a well-known essay mill last year to understand better the process. An account of my experience (which set me back £257) appears here: bit.ly/2IzvF6l.

  3. The Council of Europe ETINED Working Group on Education Fraud is actively working on this, with contributions from Professor Michael Draper and myself. We have written to the Secretary of State, and Lib Dem peer Lord Storey has been trying to get a Private Member’s Bill introduced in Parliament. Anyone interested should get in touch with Professor Draper at Swansea University.

  4. Further to this, they also report students to universities because students haven’t paid for the work. It’s an ethical quagmire.

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