12 Nov 2019

Combating 'contract cheating' at tertiary institutions

From Afternoons with Jesse Mulligan, 1:17 pm on 12 November 2019

At this very moment, thousands of tertiary students around the country are busy swotting up for their end-of-year exams.

But some students are less honest than others and this is proving a problem for universities and polytechs.

A file photo shows university students studying for an exam

Photo: 123RF

Dr Myra Williamson is senior lecturer of law and convenor of the BA in law at the University of Waikato, and she recently published a paper looking at "contract cheating".

She tells Jesse Mulligan contract cheating is where students submit work that has been completed for them by somebody else.  

“It doesn’t matter whether that somebody else is a paid person, a website, a family member, or a friend, a classmate or what have you.”

Although it’s mainly done in internal assessments, there have been cases in Australia where people will impersonate students to sit exams on their behalf.  

She says it’s difficult to say how widespread the problem is, but a recent study found 15 percent of students globally admitted to using contract cheating.

“That’s fairly problematic and I don’t think anybody really knows exactly the extent of it because much of the research is based on self-reporting; that’s doing a survey and asking students to anonymously admit they have used cheating services. Some students will do that, but some – even if you guarantee anonymity – won’t admit it.”

Dr Williamson says the commodification of higher education might explain the rise in cheating from students.

“People pay for the university, they pay a lot of money, and they expect a return on that investment… you get an education, you pay for it, you want the product. It’s moving away from the old-school ideals of educating and improving people for that benefit alone.”

She conducted some research of her own, posing as a student and requesting an essay from a British service. They were so detailed they even asked what grade she would like for the assignment.

“That experience shook me. I was conversing with somebody live and we just about did a deal for them to write an essay for me and it took about five minutes.”

Dr Williamson says academics often have no idea how easy and widespread it is.

“They think that if they’re doing their job well and teaching their classes well then the students are also doing well. It’s only logical that academics wouldn’t delve into this area themselves, so they really don’t know how easy it is.”

She gives the hypothetical example of a pilot who can’t land a plane as for how the practice can harm students, employers and universities when graduates don’t have the skills or knowledge that their degree should have provided them.

She says academics have an obligation to take the problem seriously in their own courses and programmes and should make alterations to assessments so that cheating is difficult, for instance, with oral tests.

“There are ways around it. You don’t have to go back to final exams being high stakes. I would recommend fixing the internal assessment that you are setting and strengthening that.”


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