Australia: Essay mills to be 'significantly penalised'
The Australian government is cracking down on contract cheating, which is getting increasingly sophisticated. Source: Hannah Wei on Unsplash.

The Australian government will introduce a new law to punish those providing or advertising commercial cheating services to higher education students.

The law would apply whether those services are delivered from within Australia or overseas, according to its response to a report from the Higher Education Standards Panel. The legislation would involve a national law, relying on federal powers with respect to communications, corporations, trade and commerce, territories, and “aliens,” to be supported by supplementary laws and regulations enacted through states and territories to cover any regulatory gaps that arise.

“Contract cheating activity, if left unchecked, poses a significant threat to the integrity and reputation of Australia’s higher education sector both domestically and internationally,” the government wrote in a statement on its Department of Education and Training’s website.

“The Government is currently drafting legislation that would make it an offence to provide or advertise cheating services in higher education in Australia.”

“Significant penalties” will be imposed under the new law, which is expected to be presented to parliament next year. Its remit would cover most “likely commercial cheating situations,” it said.

In the advice by Australia’s Higher Education Standards Panel (HESP), commissioned to look into ways to deter commercial cheating that had been identified by the Tertiary Education
Quality and Standards Agency (TEQSA), organised cheating was said to possess the potential to unleash “great damage” to Australian higher education institutions, both domestically and internationally.

Passing off someone else’s work as one’s own is considered plagiarism, a serious academic misconduct – it does not matter whether it was done with or without intention. Students caught plagiarising face penalties such as having to re-do the assignments and in more serious cases, suspension and expulsion.

Using essay mills represent a specific type of plagiarism, also known as “contract cheating,” which TEQSA describes as “… when students outsource their assessments to a third party, whether that is a commercial provider, current or former student, family member or acquaintance. It includes the unauthorised use of file-sharing sites, as well as organising another person to take an examination.”

More than two-thirds (68 percent) of academics have encountered what they suspect was cheating and around six percent of Australian students have cheated, according to a survey by University of South Australia associate professor Tracey Bretag.

Students are being offered increasingly “sophisticated,” and “well-organised” contract cheating methods, where they can request for essays, sometimes even at the postgraduate level, to be written on their behalf in a short period of time.

“Advances in information technology are enabling more clever and sophisticated ways of offering cheating services,” TEQSA chief executive Anthony McClaran said, as reported by the Sydney Morning Herald.

“They are more widespread, more easily accessible, the cost … seems to be coming down and it is leading to increased incidents,” McClaran added.

While the HESP found most higher education providers to have “adequate” policies and practices, according to a confidential report by TEQSA to the Education Minister regarding the 2014 MyMaster contract cheating service incident, “additional legislation and/or prosecution activity” is recommended to better deter the risk of cheating.

In addition to the new law, the Australian government will also work with higher education providers to develop a “template statement of commitment to academic integrity”. New students could be required to sign this on enrolment to show their commitment to act with “honesty and integrity” in their academic pursuits. The template would make clear they are not to misrepresent the work of others as their own and state the range of penalties in store if caught doing so.

“The intent is that such a clear statement at the start of a person’s study journey will help set the benchmark for future actions,” the government’s response stated. “Providers would be encouraged, on a voluntary basis, to adopt the statement for all students as part of induction processes.”