Global network set up to stamp out contract cheating in HE

Education agencies across the globe are joining forces to fight the rise of commercial cheating services that target students worldwide. The newly formed Global Academic Integrity Network (GAIN) is working to stamp out the multi-billion-dollar contract cheating operations which have flourished in recent years as online learning and assessment have become more prevalent.

The main activity of contract cheating services is providing paid-for assignments, including essays, coursework and answers to open-book exam questions, which contribute to students’ degree results. Some services are now offering answers to questions within 30 minutes, raising doubts over the integrity of online exams.

GAIN will share experiences and resources to help jurisdictions develop legislation, regulatory approaches and frameworks that penalise facilitating and advertising of cheating services.

It will disseminate best practice in anti-cheating resources and research to help educate students, faculty and institutions about the integrity risks associated with these unethical practices and to keep abreast of emerging threats.

The new network – which was founded by Quality and Qualifications Ireland (QQI) and Australia’s Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (TEQSA) – was launched at a conference in Dublin on 18 October.

It is backed by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and endorsed by various other organisations, including the Council of Europe and the European Network for Academic Integrity.

Other members of GAIN include the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education in the UK, the Office of the Ombudsperson for Academic Ethics and Procedures of the Republic of Lithuania, the New Zealand Qualifications Authority, the South African Qualifications Authority and the Higher Education Authority in Zambia.

Need for academic integrity

Quality assurance agencies and education providers are already working to inform students, staff and other stakeholders about the risks posed by cheating and the need to maintain cultures of academic integrity on campus.

TEQSA Chief Commissioner Peter Coaldrake said that many of these large cheating operations were international and were working together. Individual jurisdictions were taking enormous strides in combating cheating. But a strong alliance gave the best chance of breaking their business models.

“GAIN will share intelligence on cheating operators and insights to help different jurisdictions tighten their anti-cheating detection, laws and penalties,” he said.

The conference heard examples of integrity policies in Irish and Australian universities aimed at dissuading students from the use of cheating services. It was also told that blackmail tactics were being used by some unscrupulous operators who threatened to tell college authorities about individual students who had used their services.

Contract cheaters available 24/7

Clodagh McGivern, vice president for academic affairs at the Union of Students in Ireland, said it was much easier during the COVID crisis to turn to contract cheaters, who were available on a 24/7 basis. She said that students should be told the reasons for integrity policies and not suddenly become aware of them because of academic misconduct.

Professor Cath Ellis, associate dean of the faculty of arts, design and architecture at UNSW Sydney in Australia, argued that making academic integrity everybody’s business meant that it was nobody’s responsibility. It should be somebody’s responsibility; it should be their job. Students should also have an opportunity to retrieve the situation if they have been guilty of academic misconduct, but they should not get the marks if they didn’t do the work themselves.

Global solution required

Simon Harris, the Irish minister for further and higher education, research, innovation and science, agreed that the global nature of commercial cheating required a global solution. He described the launch of GAIN as a major step in tackling online cheating operations whose damaging influence had no regard for geographical boundaries nor the academic well-being of learners, no matter where they lived.

“We can only disrupt their business models by collaborating across borders and bringing together our collective expertise and best practice in this collaborative and innovative forum. I look forward to seeing the impact of this international alliance and encourage other countries and national agencies to sign up to the drive to protect the integrity of our education systems,” he added.

Dr Padraig Walsh, chief executive of QQI, said Ireland was proud to be at the forefront of the global effort to tackle online cheating services and protect academic integrity nationally and around the world.

“The Global Academic Integrity Network will build on important work already established in Ireland – from national legislative measures to tackle those who would facilitate cheating to the establishment of a national academic integrity network of higher education institutions sharing insights to better understand contract cheating and provide the tools to tackle the issue,” he added.

It was reported in The Irish Times recently that QQI has flagged more than 80 websites which allow students to cheat in online exams or assessments. Universities are moving to block access to them from their campus networks.

Few countries ban cheating services

Ireland is one of the few countries in the world that has legislation which prohibits the operation or promotion of so-called contract cheating services. However, its powers are limited. It can only take legal action against services based in Ireland; it is powerless to combat activity abroad, the newspaper reported.

QQI is responsible for bringing prosecutions under legislation passed in 2019. Those convicted of an offence may receive a fine of up to €100,000 (US$97,000) and-or imprisonment for a term of up to five years.

One student leader was recently quoted as saying: “On campus, the posters advertising these services are going up faster than they can be taken down. Students are being targeted on social media... Anyone who thinks there isn’t an issue doesn’t realise that it’s right under their nose.”

Dr Terry Hartle, senior vice president at the American Council on Education, said there were lots of common issues affecting higher education institutions across the globe. But there were few forums for intensive and extensive discussions on these issues. There should be better mechanisms for sharing challenges and opportunities, he added.

The conference was held to mark the 10th anniversary of the establishment of QQI, which unified three separate agencies dealing with awards in further and higher education institutions as well as quality assurance in universities. To mark the year, QQI has issued a call for proposals for €250,000 in total in 2022-23 on projects on research assessment and confidence in higher education qualifications.