Universities must stop cheating students, and it starts with investing in them

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University students cheat. Researchers globally have reported on the types and rates of cheating for decades. Recently though, and especially since the pandemic, there is growing concern about cheating and the risk it poses to the integrity of higher education – and rightly so.

The proliferation of “contract cheating” – where bespoke essays and assignments can be obtained online, means there are more ways for students to forge assignments.

Companies offering “study help” 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 to block academic cheating websites for the first time. The agency blocked 40 websites that were 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 doesn’t address the rise in cheating by other means. According to my own research, students are more likely to get a fraudulent assignment from friends, family or other students than websites.

This is not to discredit the work of Teqsa, which is doing more to address cheating than other similar bodies in other countries. But the problem runs far deeper than a couple of websites, and any solution must tackle the question: why do students cheat?

In many ways, higher education, especially in Australia, has been set up in a way that exacerbates the problem. Poor resourcing means the amount of attention tutors can give students has diminished. It also means the ability for academics to catch cheating is lowered.

Many students face external pressures to obtain a qualification. Some face pressure from family or workplaces, amplifying the likelihood they may turn to cheating.

Others are under immense financial strain, meaning they are more likely to turn to websites offering “help” with their assignments.

The rise in contract cheating means we need to see a more holistic approach to dealing with integrity than just shutting down websites. To date, many attempts by universities to stamp out cheating have been piecemeal, patchwork and reliant on resourcing. The amount of money universities are willing to spend to help fix the problem will also determine the outcome. At the moment, there doesn’t seem to be the appetite to address the systemic issues that allow cheating to occur, such as increasing the amount of time academics have to assess student work.

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

We need to address the reason cheating is not being detected. Very few students who admit outsourcing their work say they were caught. This is highly alarming. Improving detection must be central to any efforts to reduce cheating.

Detection is possible. Yet most universities tend to leave detection up to software or individual tutors, who again are constrained by the number of hours allocated to their marking tasks. With little or ineffective detection techniques there is little incentive for students to avoid cheating.

Current university systems are lagging behind what research (often their own) is telling them. Having spent almost two decades in the sector, I have seen some significant innovations to address cheating, but they are usually hindered by budget constraints.

Universities must be prepared to invest in this problem, otherwise they risk undermining the integrity of our whole higher education system.

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