Education Analysis

Industrial scale cheating taking over from learning in Australian universities

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As technology becomes more accessible, cheating has increased in Australian universities (Image via Pexels)

With technology allowing cheating to run rampant in universities, reform is urgently needed to bring a focus back to old-fashioned learning, writes Dr Lee Duffield.

A PROBLEM LABELLED “industrial scale cheating” is presenting a mortal threat to universities with students now routinely commissioning a proliferating range of online services to do their assignments. Has it yet got bad enough to jeopardise learning and standards, the quality of research and ultimately knowledge itself?

Enforcement action

The Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (TEQSA) has alerted universities to the severity of this threat and promoted attempts to contain it, such as a recent enforcement action to block 40 cheating websites. However, the perpetrators are persistent in a rich market; the agency admits that when it gets sites closed down, other ones keep coming up.

In 2022, universities, which operate committees on academic integrity, also have committed to investigations to better define and be able to tackle this problem. Hopes are pinned on digital solutions, such as protections provided through the online assessment system Inspera (see its Exam Portal), although investigations at some universities indicate that the most cheat-proof will be “authentic assessment”: ‘using creative learning experiences to test students' skills and knowledge in realistic situations’; not written examinations or turned-in assignments, essays and the like.

Recent front-page treatment of this problem in The Australian blamed it mostly on Chinese international students, while not undoing evidence of it being much more widespread. That article, by journalist Rhiannon Down, quoted a “ghost writer” on one of the cheat services, that the basic going rate for an assignment was $149 per 1,000 words.

A student interviewed for a recent radio documentary in Brisbane, while denying any use of the cheat services, sympathised with a friend who was coming off an overnight shift at work, was required for a shift the next night and had to submit an assignment in the meantime — so they paid.

Nothing to do with learning or knowledge

There is no need to demonstrate how such practice has nothing to do with learning or knowledge, though we can comprehend it as a product of the “times”. For domestic students, with half of every generation getting university places, many find it too hard to keep up with the competition, to meet the demands of careerism and corporate achievement; students are under commercial pressure to spend a lot and therefore do too much paid work; pressure comes on to pay a fee, to turn in results above their “pay grade”.

It is a nauseating formula: disrupted routines instead of a mood of concentration; perpetuating a low standard of actual achievement; against an imperative to get high marks.

Universities contribute to it?

Universities are themselves making a contribution to the trend by treating students as customers; a notion exists that people are investing in, if not buying a degree that must have express links to employment. Managerial efficiency drives will make it harder.

These digital management platforms will superimpose business strategies on the university: the cutting of subjects and removal of choice in the design of individual academic programs, (much of it even under national “framework” requirements); the standardisation of assessment, committing academics to set work that meets a restricted formula, (helpful to “ghost writers”); mandating of restrictive criteria statements, however useful and well-considered, that build up a talent for getting the boxes ticked without needing to do anything else all semester.

Bad for everybody

Dummying-up academic performance cannot be tolerated because it circumvents the advent of knowledge; bad for the learner, who does not get to grow or mature fully; bad for the country in its need for developed human resources, beginning with fully competent professionals. A cheating-driven system might still produce workforce entrants who are “start-ready” and can struggle through a career, but chances are, without actual grounding in thought, they’ll never be much good — and Australia won’t be much good, either.

Information technology may have its answers beyond the practicality of generating counter-cheat systems to deal with the cheat systems it creates. It has a pedagogical and epistemological proposition which says: you can assume that everybody already knows enough to be able to choose “chunks of knowledge” they want to buy for entertainment or work, because of the availability of voluminous, deep or shallow, well-curated and indexed, catalogue knowledge. 

“Digital knowledge” is such a credible new body of extremely well-remembered, accessible information, we might not strictly need any “old” knowledge. So the learner who cheats can go on through life buying whatever “chunks” that they want to “know”. Cheating may find a natural home in such a system, where there will be narrowly-specified outcomes and transactions, where a dull rationality can be partnered with moral neutrality.

On the other hand, organic knowledge, “old” knowledge, advanced “wetware”, obtained through study, cooperation and experience, is tied up with personal development and amongst other things, adaptability and moral choice. It has an ally in creativity. It is to do with thinking in abstract. It can be foundational for such skills as good time management, a skill missing from the lives of so many students today, half-enslaved in the “gig economy”.

What about thinking?

At least some of the universities, maybe almost all, are not giving up on thought. The proposition is alive that a university that easily corners the “market” for the brightest students can work on that. Mostly the older “Group of Eight” universities (Adelaide, ANU, Melbourne, Monash, Sydney, UNSW, Queensland, WA) can lead the pack with acceptance of offers to Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (ATAR) 90+ students, so able to set tightest entry standards generally; also, especially with more money in the bank, they can get themselves situated in the “top 100” set by agencies monitoring research performance.

Pedagogically, such universities, if they want, might concentrate on building core skills for critical thinking and understanding, those students and graduates then able to take on any vocational learning they will also want. Is it not a premise of liberal thought that if you properly learn something you may then take on anything? For the rest of Australia’s 43 universities, by degrees, as they vary from excellent to scrambling-through, it can be tougher to get up a good and true overall standard. The “ghost writer” source used by The Australian says Group of Eight universities are actually among their leading clients.

As with all things, a university should take best and judicious advantage of what is on offer in the way of digital systems, in this case, to fight the digital problem of industrial-scale cheating. As with all things, it might also deploy some rigorous “authentic” measures, such as testing in the room, with digital devices but no connectivity as part of the regular process; the same with spot checks ordered by academic supervisors; oral examinations, observation and so on.

Yet more creative means can be devised and tested for efficacy, appropriate to the different situations. It would be well worth comparing the costs for this, employing the expertise of existing, high-quality academic personnel, against the management of thousands of “instances” of digital exchange, including the anti-cheating processes. 

Academics know the students

Such a move would entail giving power back to academics, where they demonstrate strong and active discipline knowledge. It would endorse the proposal that what the teacher knows about a subject is central to learning and to the entire university project. Most discourse about universities in the present era does not mention academics, who are under pressure to make a dire calculation: how to be compliant enough yet somehow be able to get on with your work

As for students, some today are genuinely bewildered by the demand for individual accountability, accustomed to either group collaboration or to life as “doing business”. A general reform would require education on the process and ethics of it all, along with industrial-scale detection of cheating and ultimately sanctions.

Fraud being white collar crime involves deliberation more than passion and so more responsive to deterrence; a large wave of proven and egregious offenders getting sent down with no refund of university fees might be effective.

Dr Lee Duffield is a former academic and member of the University of Queensland Senate, elected by graduates of the university. This article in his own name, not a university publication, was previously published in longer form in Subtropic.com.au.

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