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Taking action on contract cheating

Lessons from the UK on the importance of starting early and understanding the societal impacts

Arlen Pettitt
Arlen Pettitt
Marketing Communications Specialist, EMEA






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Wednesday, October 19th is the International Day of Action Against Contract Cheating, organized by the International Center for Academic Integrity. In this blog post, we look at the experience of the UK, six months on from a new law banning the use and advertising of essay mills. We also look ahead to the Turnitin Summit EMEA 2022, where we’ll hear from two leading experts, Professor Michael Draper and Dr. Mary Davis.

In England, it has been a criminal offense to provide or advertise third party contract cheating services since April 2022. Ireland passed similar legislation in November 2019, Australia criminalized contract cheating in 2021 as has New Zealand.

The change in UK law was high profile and drew a lot of attention to the challenge of essay mills in particular, as well as giving institutions the ability to point to misconduct and say “this is illegal.”

Six months on, it would be tempting to dust our hands and declare the problem dealt with in the UK, but that’s simply not the case. There remains much work to uphold academic integrity and combat contract cheating. And we’ll discuss them here so as to share lessons learned to date with a global audience.

Just one of many tools

Professor Michael Draper is DVPC Education at Swansea University, Co-Chair of the Welsh Integrity and Assessment Network and is also a consultant expert with the UK Quality Assurance Agency and the Council of Europe ETINED. We spoke with him regarding this new legislation.

In his view, the new legislation is an important extra tool in the battle for academic integrity but must be paired with other initiatives in order to have a lasting and positive impact for students.

According to Professor Draper, “The UK has led on awareness raising, on non-legislative interventions, and the adoption of text-matching software—Turnitin being an example. The legislation is partly symbolic, in the sense that you can now say to students if you engage in that activity you’re engaging with a company or person committing a criminal offense. Where you take that in the sense of your institutional regulations, that’s not going to change very much except, perhaps, how you might address referrals to the police. But, where the legislation will have teeth, I am sure, is around the advertising and going to Internet Service Providers and social media platforms and saying ‘your policy says you’re not going to advertise anything with criminal content, get rid of it’ .

But there’s a whole educational piece that this isn’t just about higher education. It’s societal, it’s about employment, and it needs us to start much earlier—with schools—because students will come into higher education and adopt the same learning styles they had at school. Whatever served them there, they will carry on—if they’re used to just looking things up on the internet, not employing their own creative analysis or critical thinking skills, or properly reference, then we’re in trouble.”

While the UK leads on awareness raising and technology-based interventions and is now with the frontrunners on legislation and a big show of government support, it’s not yet joining all the dots outside of higher education. Ultimately, learning is the goal and punitive measures must be accompanied with the funding and infrastructure required to enable student success. After all, the time and financial commitment of education is substantial for students and their families, which can understandably lead to significant levels of stress.

A product of pressure?

As well as employing a full range of tools against contract cheating—everything from technology, to written policies, and yes, action where misconduct is found—there’s also a need to understand students and the reasons why they might turn to third parties.

As part of a survey to be launched in November at the Turnitin Summit EMEA 2022, we spoke to 1,500 students from across Europe and the Middle East about their attitudes towards contract cheating, and discovered that feeling overwhelmed (23.0%), workload (21.0%), and economic pressure (15.6%) were the key reasons why students might submit non-original work.

This paints a clear picture of pressures—whether internal or external—which influence the behavior of students, and which must be understood and addressed in order to minimize the likelihood of turning to third parties. If we are to be student-centered in our approach to education, we must understand why cheating occurs and take steps to mitigate shortcut solutions.

It also points to the need to start early—well before entering higher education—and embed the key skills needed to succeed academically while still emphasizing the importance of integrity.

It’s an issue that has led Dr Zeenath Reza Khan, Assistant Professor at the University of Wollongong (Dubai), to develop a specific module for middle and high school students on the basics of academic integrity, to address what she calls “a gap between how students prepare for university when they are in schools and what universities expect when students join in terms of academic writing.”

If punitive measures are the only actions in place, it’s frankly a shortcoming for both students and educators. Students should be educated on academic integrity early so that they can avoid punishment. Educators, who never enjoy confronting misconduct let alone contract cheating, can take preventative measures via instruction. And institutions shouldn’t suffer attrition or scandal from misconduct.

Improving inclusive practice

The work of Dr. Mary Davis, Principal Lecturer (Student Experience) at Oxford Brookes University, also points to another issue; that of inclusion.

In a recent paper, Dr Davis argues, “There are many academic integrity issues that connect with inclusion; one of the most concerning is the continued over-representation of students from certain groups, including international students, in academic conduct investigations.”

Alongside international non-native speakers, the paper also points to students from widening participation backgrounds and those with disabilities as needing extra institutional support to understand and assimilate academic integrity policies. Such marginalized student groups have myriad reasons for struggling with academic integrity, including lack of prior instruction, instruction not aligned to Western ideals, as well as the added stress of multiple languages.

Part of the solution, according to Dr Davis, should be reviewing policies to ensure they meet the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) guidelines. Additionally, educators should be empowered to implement an inclusive approach towards academic integrity to support at-risk students.

Building the right foundation

By ensuring students have the skills needed to meet the rigors of higher education, they can then have the support required to fully understand academic integrity, and we can set a firm foundation for tackling academic misconduct.

Why is a foundation in academic integrity important?

Contract cheating is a societal issue as well as an educational one. As well as the credibility of qualifications and the capabilities of the individuals which hold them, there’s also a risk of blackmail and link to other illegal activity.

“I don’t think students realize—although they’re beginning to cotton on to it—that there’s organized crime behind a lot of this. Some students have had their financial details sold on the Dark Web, students are having to change financial details, being blackmailed. That’s a worry, that criminality in addition to the actual selling, and that potential for students’ lives to be torn apart,” states Professor Michael Draper.

Additionally, research has shown that there is “a strong relationship between academic dishonesty and the level of corruption of a country,” let alone workplace misconduct (Guerrero-Dib, et al., 2020). Education is not only the content of what is learned, but the behavior that surrounds it; and it is important to help students understand that academic integrity is a life-long journey and value. It also goes without saying that dishonest behavior can stain reputations for nations, institutions, and workplaces alike.

Five lessons from the UK’s experience for global action

The UK’s contract cheating law is an important milestone, but there is still lots to do. The UK’s position at the forefront of legislation contains many lessons for global consumption. Here are five important lessons from the journey to date:

  • Legislation can make a clear line in the sand and prevent advertising of contract cheating services—or, in the absence of legislation, institutions can make these issues clear in their academic integrity policies.
  • Work to make sure those academic integrity policies are inclusive to support all students, following recognized guidelines like those of the UDL.
  • Make appropriate use of technology—including Turnitin's—to identify and flag cases of contract cheating and academic misconduct, as well as using it for more formative assessment, where feedback on writing skills can help avoid problems down the line. Such tools include Feedback Studio, Draft Coach, and Originality. And in the case of assessment, ensure that exams and assignments are inclusively designed and delivered via Gradescope.
  • Where misconduct is found, make it a 'teachable moment' and work to understand why students submitted non-original work and support those involved to take positive action.
  • As institutions and educators you can plan for early intervention, even in the absence of government activity, to embed the right ethos and the right skills for success in higher and further education—for example, by working with schools in your area to support them to take action, such as participating in the International Day of Action Against Contract Cheating.

In conclusion, we laud the increasing awareness of contract cheating, made more visible by legislation. At the same time, punitive measures, while a deterrent, are an endpoint to be avoided. Educator involvement is key in ensuring students embrace the learning journey, in school and beyond. By working together, and building a genuine global community in support for academic integrity, we can really take action—starting today.

Professor Michael Draper and Dr Mary Davis are both speaking at the Turnitin Summit EMEA 2022, taking place on 2nd and 3rd November. Register now to hear from them, and to hear more about our survey with students from across EMEA.