A new law is needed to tackle contract cheating in the UK

Students paying for someone else to write assessments for them, otherwise known as contract cheating, is an issue that poses a threat to educational standards. One of the common suggestions to address this issue is a legal approach. In an article published today in the International Journal for Educational Integrity the authors look at whether the UK Fraud Act could be used to combat contract cheating and explore other approaches that may be more effective. Here the authors tell us more.

(This is a guest blog post by Philip M. Newton & Michael J. Draper)

Contract cheating” happens when students pay someone else to do their assessments for them. This is currently very easy to do; there are hundreds of websites, offering essays and almost any other type of assessment. This issue presents a threat to educational standards around the world. The assessments do not cost much, and are available quickly.

Students propose modest penalties for the use of such services, perhaps due to a lack of understanding about the basic conventions of academic writing. Standard University regulations, at least in the UK, recommend that students using these services be withdrawn from their studies.

There are a variety of different ways this issue could be addressed, but amongst the most common suggestions we hear is to use a legal approach.

This was recently advocated by the UK regulator of Higher Education, the Quality Assurance Agency, following the meeting of an expert forum which included one of the authors (PN). The report produced by this group suggested use of the 2006 UK Fraud Act to tackle contract cheating—a possibility that had been independently arrived at by another one of the authors (MD).

The study

In the current issue of the International Journal for Educational Integrity, we take a close look at the UK Fraud Act, and compare it against the commonly observed practices of essay writing companies. We look at the terms and conditions on the websites of these companies, and the advertising they use.

The Fraud Act is unlikely to be effective in tackling this issue, largely due to the disclaimers and caveats used by essay-writing companies.

We conclude that the Fraud Act is unlikely to be effective in tackling this issue, largely due to the disclaimers and caveats used by essay-writing companies, a common theme of which is that “products should not be used as the students own work,” and are to be used as “custom study aids.” We find that these disclaimers are largely at odds with the advertising used by some of the websites, but these inducements when combined with the terms and conditions would be unlikely sufficient to deploy the Fraud Act.

In our article we purpose a new offence and thankfully another member of the QAA expert forum, Lord Storey of Liverpool, has proposed a new law to specifically target contract cheating, although it remains to be seen whether the proposed specific new offence will be one of strict liability. The enforcement advantage of a strict liability offence is that breach is simply a matter of fact—do the circumstances fit the offence without the need to establish an intention to commit it. Establishing intention is problematic in the context of disclaimers and there is the added complication of imputing intention which is the product of individual or collective decision making or omission to a corporate mind. The majority of essay mills are corporate bodies.

Would a legal approach actually be effective? That is hard to say. Other countries have laws against these practices and yet prosecutions are rare, perhaps because existing laws largely require the demonstration of ‘intent’ on the part of the defendant. A ‘strict liability’ offence would make it easier although a “due diligence” defense would likely apply.

Lord Storey of Liverpool, has proposed a new law to specifically target contract cheating.

Current approaches also rely on detecting the custom-written essays in the first place, and then identifying a “victim.” Not easy when the many actors in the process; student, university, writer, company and websites, can all be in different countries. Nevertheless, we would hope that a legal approach would at least act as a deterrent to would-be users of these services and serve as a lever to change behaviour.

However, legal changes alone are not the answer to this problem. We need to ensure that assessments are rigorous and less open to completion by a third party. The link (or not) between assessment design and contract cheating is currently being explored in a research project undertaken by a team including one of the authors (PN) and the Editor of the International Journal for Educational Integrity Tracey Bretag. We need to make sure it is preferable for students to “do the right thing;” make sure they have access to the resources and support they need to undertake meaningful learning that prepares them for their chosen path post-graduation, which purchased assignments will not.

We also need to make sure that the sector continues to focus on the issue. The International Center for Academic Integrity ran a day of action to highlight the problem and it is the topic of a special session of the 3rd International Plagiarism Conference in May later this year.

It will also be important to ensure that these good intentions, in law, assessment design and education, are supported by guidance and regulation. The Council of Europe has established the ETINED platform to tackle corruption in education, including a specific work-stream on contract cheating that aims to produce guidance for member states.

In summary then, there is a lot to do if we are to tackle contract cheating, a modern phenomenon that can only be tackled by new laws, and innovative educational design.

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