Under new law, parents to be punished for aiding a student

A parent or friend who helps a student complete an assignment, no matter how minor, could be punished under a new federal law intended to stamp out cheating on Australia’s university campuses.

Academic researchers say that ‘contract cheating’– paying someone to undertake an assignment or sit an examination in their place – is on the rise.

But the wording in the draft legislation intended to stamp out cheating is so broad that it could also mean a friend or family member who even suggests minor changes to a student’s work would be breaking the law.

Federal Education Minister Dan Tehan announced he wants the legislation introduced to parliament this year.

“We will also take action to ensure that those online providers of cheating will be dealt with as well,” Tehan said.

“But the government jurisdiction only goes so far, meaning targeting overseas websites becomes less of a punitive exercise and more one of track and block.”

Under the proposed law, anyone found guilty of helping a student cheat could face up to two years in prison or a fine of up to AU$210,000 (US$147,000).

According to a draft of the planned bill, it would also be an offence “to provide or advertise contract cheating services”.

The legislation similarly applies to anyone setting up a website that offers to complete assignments or sit examinations in exchange for a fee. Such sites have become increasingly common and academics believe that a rising number of their students, including many from overseas, are making use of them.

‘Powerful signal’

Universities Australia Chief Executive Catriona Jackson said while the proposed bill was needed to send a “powerful signal” to anyone offering contract cheating services, some of its wording was too broad.

“There’s a phrase [in the bill] describing prohibiting the provision of ‘any part of a piece of work or assignment’ that a student was required to complete,” Jackson said.

“We’re concerned that this might mean that if you were a mum or a dad at home proofreading your child’s essay, and you say ‘those three sentences don’t work very well, how about you use this different sentence or this different construction or these different words?’, then that kind of assistance might be captured."

She said she doubted that anyone would want this to be the case so her organisation would prefer that “some of the language had a little more attention” before the final version of the draft was released.

A detailed study last year by academics at the University of South Australia into cheating among university students, titled “Contract cheating: a survey of Australian university students”, found that students were increasingly ‘outsourcing’ their assignments to other people or groups to complete.

The researchers undertook a survey of more than 14,000 students at eight Australian universities to “explore their experiences with and attitudes towards contract cheating”.

“A spectrum of seven outsourcing behaviours were investigated, and three significant variables were found to be associated with contract cheating: dissatisfaction with the teaching and learning environment, a perception that there are ‘lots of opportunities to cheat’, and speaking a language other than English at home,” the researchers say in a report of the study.

Ways to minimise cheating

“To minimise contract cheating, our evidence suggests that universities need to support the development of teaching and learning environments that nurture strong student-teacher relationships, reduce opportunities to cheat through curriculum and assessment design, and address the well-recognised language and learning needs of [foreign] students.”

The researchers say their findings indicate that contract cheating could be best tackled by improving key aspects of the teaching and learning environment.

These included the relationships between students and staff because such improvements were likely not only to minimise cheating but also improve detection of cheating when it occurred. But, in a discussion of the findings, the researchers also say that contract cheating “is the symptom of a higher education system under stress”.

Among the key findings was the conclusion that because students “now share their work a lot” this can lead to cheating.

Other points made by the researchers are that:

  • • Students largely ‘outsource’ their work to those they know, rather than commercial providers.

  • • Contract cheating is influenced by three key factors: if students speak a language other than English at home; if they perceive there are ‘lots of opportunities to cheat’; and if they are ‘dissatisfied with the teaching and learning environment’.

  • • Students don’t ‘care’ about contract cheating, and staff are not talking to them about it.

  • • Suspected cases of contract cheating often are not reported, and when they are, the penalties are lenient.

The researchers say that the design of student assessments has a role to play, but that what they call ‘authentic assessment’ is not the solution and nor is a return to high stakes examinations.

“There are some types of assessment which are ‘less likely’ to be outsourced, yet these assessments are not widely used,” say the researchers.