Universities must stop cheating students, and it starts investing in them | Rebecca Awdry

youcheating college students. Researchers worldwide have been reporting on the types and rates of cheating for decades. However, of late, and especially since the pandemic, there has been a growing concern about fraud and the risk it poses to the integrity of higher education – and rightly so.

The rise in “contract fraud” – where customized essays and assignments can be obtained online – means there are more ways for students to forge assignments.

Companies that offer “study aid” have many different business models. They are predatory and use marketing techniques to promote themselves as legitimate “support” for students.

The Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (Teqsa) recently used its powers for the first time to block academic cheat websites. The agency blocked 40 websites visited about 450,000 times a month.

But while this is a positive development, it doesn’t address the complex reasons students cheat. It also does not address the increase in cheating by other means. According to my own research, students are more likely to receive fraudulent assignments from friends, family, or other students than websites.

This is not to disparage Teqsa’s work, which does more to crack down on cheating than other similar agencies in other countries. But the problem goes much deeper than a few websites, and any solution should address the question: why are students cheating?

In many ways, higher education, especially in Australia, has been set up in such a way as to exacerbate the problem. Poor resources means that the amount of attention teachers can give to students has decreased. It also means lowering the ability for academics to catch cheating.

Many students are under pressure from outside to earn a qualification. Some face pressure from family or workplaces, increasing the likelihood of cheating.

Others are under tremendous financial pressure, meaning they are more likely to turn to websites that offer “help” with their assignments.

The increase in contract fraud means we need to see a more holistic approach to dealing with integrity than just closing websites. To date, many attempts by universities to eradicate cheating have been patchy, patchwork, and resource-dependent. The amount of money universities are willing to spend to solve the problem will also determine the outcome. At this point, there seems to be no need to address the systemic problems that allow fraud, such as increasing the amount of time academics have to assess students’ work.

Universities should also think about redesigning courses in a way that is more attractive to students and helps them connect with their education.

We need to address the reason cheating goes undetected. Very few students who admit to outsourcing their work say they have been caught. This is very alarming. Improving detection should be at the heart of all efforts to reduce cheating.

Detection is possible. Still, most universities tend to leave detection to software or individual teachers, who are again limited by the number of hours allocated to their grading tasks. With few or ineffective detection techniques, there is little incentive for students to avoid cheating.

Current university systems are lagging behind what (often their own) research tells them. After working in the industry for nearly two decades, I’ve seen some significant innovations to tackle cheating, but these are mostly hampered by budget constraints.

Universities must be willing to invest in this problem or they threaten to undermine the integrity of our entire higher education system.

A meaningful approach is needed to improve integrity, and it is needed now.

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