October 19 2022 marks the International Day of Action against Contract Cheating, an event organised by ICAI which is running for the 7th time. I first wrote about and presented on contract cheating in 2006. Even though I’m always pleased to see the continual interest in this area and the many great initiatives that are being used to tackle contract cheating, it’s also a shame that this type of academic misconduct is still so prevalent.

As I often argue in talks and academic research, we need to address contract cheating in multiple ways. Awareness raising and work with students is of vital importance. I’ve done a lot of work myself on making assessment engaging for students and in looking for opportunities to make contract cheating less valuable to students. We continue to have some detection technology available to support us too.

Perhaps one place in which the international higher education sector is falling behind is with their regulatory response.

On a national level, some Governments have introduced legislation designed to make offering contract cheating services illegal. In 2022, England passed laws to ban commercial contract cheating providers from operating, although these laws do not cover the other constituent countries of the United Kingdom, namely Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Importantly, the laws do not criminalise students. Similar laws exist in other countries, including Ireland, New Zealand, Australia and Montenegro, as well as in some states in the U.S.

It is hard to judge how successful legislative approaches have been. On the one hand, they are important as they send a strong message to students that they are using an inappropriate service. They make it difficult for online sites to carry advertising for contract cheating services. But at the same time, sites can operate outside the banned country. Students are still finding contract cheating providers. And within England, where I am based, contract cheating providers are certainly still operating. They also have the option to move to Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland, from where they could approach students in England.

Where then do regulatory approaches come into play within universities themselves?

Simply put, universities need to make sure that contract cheating is defined in their policies, procedures and regulations, that there is a process to follow when contract cheating is suspected, that the level of proof required is stated, and that penalties are listed that are fair and consistent. Contract cheating can’t just be considered as another type of plagiarism if it is to be taken seriously as an academic threat.

Academic policies have to be agile. That is, it should be possible to update them as new knowledge about contract cheating emerges or new threats to academic integrity become known. Too many policies are only updated on a multi-year cycle, meaning that the information contained within them is continually out of date.

Policies need to be written in such a way that they are accessible to students. Legal language is beyond the comprehension of many, especially students whooften lack the incentive to read it.

Policies also have to consider difficult issues related to contract cheating. How, for example, should a university react if a student is detected having paid for answers but the student claims those answers were never submitted? What is a student wrote an initial draft of work, but this was subsequently altered by a paid copy editor, so the final version is not all by the student? What happens if a student outsources computer code, rather than text? There are all kinds of challenges there and all of these are based on real world examples.

A further question asks, what if a student who has already graduated completes work for a current student? Should the graduated student have their qualification rescinded? What if this takes place in a country where providing paid contract cheating services is illegal? Is it then the responsibility of the university to prosecute the graduated student? Should the evidence be turned over to the police as a criminal manner?

As part of the activity surrounding the International Day of Action against Contract Cheating, I encourage you to investigate matters like these directly within your university. Find out when policies surrounding academic integrity and contract cheating were last updated and how you can help ensure they are complete and up to date. Check how far students are involved in the construction of these policies. Ask how difficult questions would be addressed at your institution under the current policies.

But ultimately, please don’t assume that any approach to reducing contract cheating is the only one, the right one or the correct one. It can be argued that legal, procedural and regulatory approaches are essential, but they cannot work in isolation. Do use the International Day of Action against Contract Cheating to continue to raise awareness. Even if you’re not directly participating as part of an institution, do join the live broadcasts that ICAI are supporting. And do support the move to help students to #excelwithintegrity and to value working on #myownwork.