The commercialisation of higher education, driven by constant uncertainty about funding, has created ‘a perfect storm’ for the proliferation of contract cheating. Intense competition at all levels, a dependence on international student revenue, and a focus on retention and graduate employability have contributed to compromised teaching and learning environments. Facing precarious job markets after graduation, and positioned as fee-paying ‘customers’, many students are taking ‘transactional’ approaches to learning, with some outsourcing their work altogether. The findings from this project provide clear evidence that contract cheating is a systemic problem that requires a sector-wide response.
There is a strong perception that in order to ensure fiscal self-sufficiency and sustainability university managers focus more on the profit-driven ‘business’ of education than on the education process itself. Using sophisticated marketing strategies to increase ‘market share’, universities compete for students who pay for educational ‘products’ rather than for the opportunity to engage in a transformative learning process. The drive for ‘efficiencies’ in teaching and learning has led to an increasingly casualised and poorly resourced teaching workforce who must manage large and diverse cohorts, often in environments that enable little or no face-to-face interaction. Reduced teaching and learning budgets mean that even the most dedicated educator struggles to provide meaningful, student-centred curriculum and feedback for learning.
Responsibility for addressing contract cheating does not rest solely with educators, and simplistic, singular solutions are on their own ineffective. Educators need adequate workload and time to develop authentic, engaging curriculum which is ‘less likely’ to be outsourced, and sufficient marking time to provide targeted, individualised feedback. It is essential that educators have opportunities to get to know their students, whether that is face-to-face or online; and training, support and access to a range of technologies that assist them to educate students, reduce students’ opportunities to cheat and help to identify cheating when it occurs.
Despite the perceived wisdom that contract cheating is solely the result of dishonest behaviour by students, this project has identified that students represent just one part of a complex system of interacting factors. Students are under increasing financial and social pressure to ‘get through’ their degrees, while simultaneously struggling with the sense that ‘nobody cares’ about them. For international students and those who speak a language other English at home (LOTE), this isolation is compounded, making this group of students especially vulnerable to unscrupulous and marketing savvy commercial cheat sites. The anonymous environment of contemporary higher education classrooms gives students the perception that there are ‘lots of opportunities’ to cheat and may also explain the finding that those who are dissatisfied with the teaching and learning environment are more likely to report engaging in cheating behaviour.