QAA tells universities how to fight contract cheating

The independent quality body for higher education in the United Kingdom, the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education or QAA, has issued new guidance on how to combat 'contract cheating', where students pay a company or individual to produce work that they then pass off as their own.

The guidance was drawn up at the request of Universities and Science Minister Jo Johnson following the QAA’s investigation into ‘essay mills’ last year.

The guidance says higher education providers have an obligation to ensure that awards that they make meet nationally agreed standards and are obliged to ensure that their assessments are equitable, valid and reliable, but contract cheating services, and the students making use of them, pose a risk to achieving this.

Reliability in this context means “ensuring that assessments accurately reflect or test the extent to which students have achieved the learning outcomes of their programme”, the guidance says.

“Contract cheating therefore represents a clear threat to providers' ability to assure the standards of their qualifications, and as such, to the reputation of UK higher education as a whole.

“Although student plagiarism and ghost-writing have been longstanding aspects of academic misconduct, the recent growth of third parties offering to help students to cheat has raised serious concerns in the sector.”

The report suggests the problem has deepened with the increasing presence of essay mill websites on the internet.

The companies involved – typically using a website to promote themselves and receive orders – are often dubbed ‘essay mills’, but services provided may include not just essays or other assignments, but conducting research and impersonation in exams.

Companies’ products can range from essays to lab reports, reflective journals, dissertations, computer programming, film editing and other services.

“Students are increasingly being targeted by advertising assuring them that this is acceptable and common practice,” the document warns.

The report said that while there is a common perception that students studying in another language are more likely to cheat than domestic students, there is currently “no UK data to support this view”.

Adopting a deterrence framework

The report recommends an approach where providers “adopt a culture of academic integrity, underpinned by a strategy for encouraging scholarship and discouraging all forms of academic misconduct”.

It says: “A crucial part of the institutional deterrence framework is the adoption of strong, clear, transparent and consistently applied policies, combined with fair and proportional sanctions.

“Investigating and prosecuting instances of cheating can be highly time consuming and expensive. Reducing the most serious types of misconduct before they occur will free up resources and allow institutions to focus on education and support.”

The new guidance recommends:
  • • Clear information for students on the risks of cheating, including academic misconduct being reported to relevant professional bodies,
  • • Support for students to develop independent study skills, including academic writing,
  • • Using a range of assessment methods to limit opportunities for cheating,
  • • Blocking of essay mill sites and action against essay mill advertising on campus,
  • • Smarter detection, including new software and greater familiarity with students' personal styles and capabilities,
  • • Appropriate support for whistle blowing – to protect accuser as well as accused
  • • Sudent involvement on academic misconduct policies and panels.
The QAA has worked with Universities UK, GuildHE and the National Union of Students to produce the new guidance.

Minister Johnson said contract cheating is “unacceptable and pernicious”.

“It not only undermines standards in our world-class universities, but devalues the hard-earned qualifications of those who don't cheat, and can even, when it leads to graduates practising with inadequate professional skills, endanger the lives of others.”

He said this is why he asked the QAA to look at this issue and introduce new guidance for students and providers.

He said he expects the new regulator, the Office for Students, to ensure that the sector “implements strong policies and sanctions to address this important issue in the most robust way possible”.

QAA Chief Executive Douglas Blackstock said: “It is important that students are not duped by these unscrupulous essay companies.

“Paying someone else to write essays is wrong and could damage their career. Education providers should take appropriate action to tackle and prevent this kind of abuse.”

Seeking a consistent approach

The QAA wants a consistent approach to be taken by higher education providers in tackling the problem. It is also asking universities and colleges to record incidents of this and other kinds of cheating, to help build a clearer picture of the scale of the problem in UK higher education.

As well as the new guidance for higher education providers, the QAA is also working on guidance for students. The National Union of Students is running a similar campaign to combat contract cheating with students.

The guidance on contract cheating urges institutions to ensure that staff are kept up to date with academic regulations on assessment and their responsibility to uphold academic standards and training. Training should ensure that staff are familiar with the concept of contract cheating and the procedures to be followed when it is suspected.

Suggestions for prevention measures include using a mixture of assessment methods; considering how to limit cheating opportunities when designing and reviewing courses and setting assignments; blocking essay mill websites from IT equipment; staying alert to posters, flyers and social media messages promoting contract cheating services and taking steps to minimise or counter them.

Some of the detection methods it urges institutions to consider include implementing organisation-wide detection methods; using linguistic analysis tools to complement text-matching software; getting to know students’ styles and capabilities; and being alert to unexpected peaks in a student’s assessment performance.

The guidance also advocates signalling a strong commitment to academic integrity through institutional values or its mission statement and making regulations and guidance as clear as possible, including specifying an explicit procedure to follow to report a suspicion of academic misconduct, determining who to report to and how to report it.

It suggests that designated and specially trained academic conduct officers could adjudicate on routine matters; and a panel could be used to adjudicate on serious and-or complex allegations of academic misconduct, and appeals, with members supported and trained appropriately. It urges the recording of statistics for cheating cases in “sufficient detail to allow effective analysis”.