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The Problem of Contract Cheating in Higher Education (and How to Deal with It)

Contract cheating in higher education has been creating a buzz in recent years. In Australia, New Zealand, and the UK, governments are working to curb the issue by passing laws that make contract cheating illegal. These laws followed after never-ending reports surrounding essay mills, which many universities in the UK have already blocked access to.

But tackling this issue isn’t as simple as shutting down essay mills. Sadly, this solution only helps in the short term but won’t make the problem go away. The full scope of contract cheating is vast yet opaque, especially since students won’t admit to taking part in contract cheating, and essay mills are tight-lipped about their business practices.

So how can one be sure that academic dishonesty is actually happening? It’s an important question, given that various online services and forums are making it easier than ever for students to buy academic papers and pass them off as their own. For teachers, this can be very difficult to catch, and no one can tell just how big this issue can be.

Contract Cheating and the Internet

Contract cheating is a form of academic dishonesty. It’s when students deliberately purchase pre-made papers or hire someone else to complete their homework or school project for them, usually getting help from essay mills.

According to IHateWritingEssays founder, David Anderson, ‘the advent of the Internet has brought about an alarming rise in the number of students committing contract cheating’. Students engage in essay mills where they can download pre-made academic papers or have them write it on their behalf and then present it as their own, for a fee. However, Anderson emphasized that ‘legitimate essay writing services must not be confused with essay mills, since these agencies exist solely as a source of model papers and students themselves must decide what to do with them once the paper has been turned over to them.’

Still, the issue remains. Because while essay writing services stick to their terms of service and codes of conduct, the problem often lies with students who take advantage of these services for varying reasons. 

Contract Cheating During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Last year, the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) has published a guideline for UK higher education institutions to assist in protecting academic integrity and prevent the use of essay mills. This followed immediately after discovering that the global pandemic has caused a significant rise in the number of students engaging in contract cheating.

According to Universities Minister, Michelle Donelan: ‘This is a difficult time for students, and those who are feeling particularly worried about their studies could be more vulnerable to essay mills marketing right now.’ Hundreds of essay mills have taken advantage of this crisis and have become increasingly sophisticated with their methods, existing to profit from students’ anxiety by encouraging them to commit academic dishonesty.

For over 12 months, students were not required to go to campus and have been studying remotely. Because of this, the temptation and opportunity to engage in contract cheating has increased with the limited interaction with teachers. The result is that many students are turning over dishonest assignments, submit ghost-written essays, and/or commit plagiarism, since students tend to have more freedom from studying at home and can easily copy/paste information online in the hopes their work won’t be detected as plagiarized.

Preventing Contract Cheating

There are ways the teaching staff can help curb contract cheating and ensure that students’ academic papers and assignments are written and submitted honestly.

  • Open discussion. At the beginning of every semester, discuss contract cheating to your students (which is something they may not entirely be aware of). Have them define and explain it, and then write down your expectations on the syllabus. Talk about academic integrity and ethics with your students, and cite the importance and benefits of doing their own work.
  • Develop a mission and vision. Keep students oriented with their learning and professional goals instead of focusing on grades and short-term outcomes.
  • Be creative with assignments. Make homework and school projects meaningful and unique. Create assignments that won’t be easy to duplicate. Consider assigning a paper that requires students to be genuine – one that will require them to gather local information.
  • Know your students’ capabilities. Spend time to know what each of your students can do. Assign impromptu writing to get a baseline for gauging individual capabilities, strengths and weaknesses, as well as thought patterns. If a student is known to struggle with writing yet manages to submit a flawless paper, consider it a red flag. Be wary of signs like rare sources, unusual word choices, or use of sophisticated concepts and structures that you wouldn’t expect a student to have learned yet at their level.
  • Gather information. If you suspect a student for submitting dishonest assignments, discuss the matter privately. Ask how they have found their sources, why they used them, as well as their writing process. If they can’t provide answers to these questions, chances are they may not have written the paper themselves.
  • Follow the school’s academic integrity process. If you strongly suspect a student has committed contract cheating, make sure to follow the university’s guidelines in dealing with students breaching academic integrity. It may sound simple to just issue a warning, but doing so can undermine the academic process. As a teacher or lecturer, you must be extremely strict. Create an ethical climate while making it clear to the student that the institution strongly condemns and will not tolerate contract cheating.

No matter the college, or university – with or without the COVID-19 pandemic – teachers will always want to ensure that assignments and essays produced by their students are submitted with utmost integrity. But with remote learning set to continue indefinitely, it’s vital for academic institutions to be aware of the problem of contract cheating, and to watch out for signs of academic dishonesty among students.

Have the necessary tools to analyse suspicious activities. Not only will this help both teachers and the students, it will also safeguard the institution’s reputation.