Project Rationale: The Rise of Contract Cheating

Recent Australian university cheating scandals have provided timely impetus to examine the flourishing phenomena of online cheating sites and ghost-writing. The MyMaster case (Visentin 2015a; 2015b) and other, recent newsworthy cheating scandals in(see, for example, ABC Radio National 2015; Chung 2015) has underscored a potentially large and unaddressed problem regarding usage of online essay mills, cheat sites, file-sharing sites and ghost-writers to complete university assessments.

Lancaster and Clarke (2006, p.1) first defined contract cheating as “the submission of work by students for academic credit which the students have paid contractors to write for them”. The term ‘contract cheating’ has now evolved to encompass a cluster of related practices involving the outsourcing of university assessments to third parties, whether or not these entities are commercial providers (Walker & Townley, 2012). Research conducted by Wallace and Newton (2014) into assignments procured through the contract cheating sites, ‘Freelancer’ and ‘Transtutors’, point to evidence of a thriving global industry in contracted assessment.

Contract cheating presents an additionally challenging form of academic integrity breach activity given that it so difficult to detect (Walker & Townley, 2012). Current institutional responses to plagiarism and poor academic preparation are insufficient to address these forms of deliberate cheating.

Of additional concern are students’ attitudes regarding contract cheating. While comprehensive surveys of students’ attitudes towards, and experiences with, contract cheating have been undertaken in the UK, few studies of this type have been conducted in Australia. It is therefore difficult for the higher education sector to develop informed, evidence-based responses. Recent studies have revealed a fairly relaxed attitude regarding the seriousness of contract cheating. Ninety percent of the UK undergraduate students surveyed by Newton (2015) felt that expulsion was too harsh a penalty for purchasing an essay, with 42% stating that failing the assignment would be a sufficient penalty (Newton, 2015). Still in the UK, Rigby et al. (2015) found that 50% of surveyed students were willing to purchase an assignment.

The Potential of Authentic Assessment

The international academic integrity literature has long argued for original, sequential and personalised assessment design, coupled with clearly articulated academic integrity policy to foster a culture of integrity (Bertram Gallant, 2008; Bretag et al., 2013; Carroll & Appleton 2001). For addressing contract cheating, however, this does not go far enough. Given the findings cited above from Newton and Lang (2015), indicating that even highly personalised tasks such as portfolios or reflective journals are being outsourced, a more innovative approach to assessment design is needed.

While ‘authentic assessment’ has long been recognised as a core feature of good assessment design (Herrington & Herrington 2006; 2007; Gulikers, Bastiaens & Kirschner 2004; Newmann & Archbald 1992; Wiggins, 1989), its role in nurturing academic integrity has not been adequately explored. The term ‘authentic assessment’ is most commonly used to refer to assessment that engages students in real world scenarios or problems.  It was developed as an alternative to traditional standardised tests, such as multiple choice or short answer exams, which typically comprise discrete, de-contextualised items that prompt memorisation and recall.

When it comes to academic integrity, however, there seems to be an assumption that authenticity garners engagement, which equates to a disincentive to cheat. The project team could find no data in the literature that supports this inference. In Australia and internationally, programmatic approaches to assessment (Schuwirth & Van der Vleuten, 2007; Stupans & McAllister, 2015; Van der Vleuten et al., 2012) are emerging as an innovative response to these and other assessment design challenges. A number of recent OLT funded projects on assessment policy and practice propose programmatic approaches to assessment design as part of their broader recommendations (Dawson & Bearman, 2014; Davies, 2008; Duck, Hamilton & Robb, 2011; Oliver, 2011).

Though the relationship between authentic approaches to assessment design and the problem of contract cheating is yet to be fully explored, this approach provides abundant potential to create learning environments where there is little reason or opportunity for students to cheat.

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Project Methodology

National Student Survey
This survey (n = 12 institutions) explored students’ attitudes toward and experiences with using third parties to complete their assessments. The survey explored the individual, contextual and institutional factors that contributed to students’ behaviours.

National Teaching and Teaching Support Staff Survey
This survey (n = 12 institutions) was conducted in parallel to the national student survey. It explored staff attitudes toward and experiences with their students’ use of third parties to complete assessments. The survey also explored the individual, contextual and institutional factors that affected the implementation of assessment that promoted academic integrity, and addressed contract cheating.

Academic Integrity Breach Data
Data from two universities’ longitudinal academic integrity databases was analysed, revealing the types of assessment where contract cheating was most commonly detected. Analysis revealed the number of contract cheating cases detected, the kinds of assessment tasks involved, the penalties applied, and (in one database) the detection method.

Contract Cheating Procurement Requests
The final data set analysed in the project is a sample of online procurement requests (n = 20,000) posted to multiple cheating websites, showing the types of assessment most commonly contracted out to third parties.

Project Outcomes

  1. Contract cheating and assessment design framework – to build on existing research on good assessment practice in the Australian university context that fosters academic integrity, and to contribute to emerging work on authentic, programmatic assessment design.
  2. An interactive and user-friendly website – to disseminate research findings and resources
  3. Resources for higher education stakeholders – to ensure that good practice for authentic assessment can be implemented.
  4. Nationwide staff workshops – to disseminate findings, gather stakeholder feedback and to refine resources that address contract cheating.
  5. A panel entitled, ‘Authentic assessment and contract cheating’ at Plagiarism Across Europe and Beyond, Czech Republic, June 2017.
  6. An edited thematic collection of the International Journal for Educational Integrity – The rise of contract cheating in higher education – Academic fraud beyond plagiarism
  7. Analysis and findings based on the largest contract cheating survey data to date –to contribute to sector-wide understandings of the relationship between assessment design and the use of third parties in higher education.
  8. Publications and presentations – to contribute to the literature on assessment design and contract cheating.

Project Team

Project co-leader, Associate Professor Tracey Bretag (University of South Australia), is an international expert in academic integrity in higher education. She has previously led two Australian national projects in this area (Academic Integrity Standards Project and the Exemplary Academic Integrity Project), is the author of the TEQSA Good Practice Note: Addressing contract cheating to safeguard academic integrity, editor of the Handbook of Academic Integrity, and is Editor-in-Chief of the International Journal for Educational Integrity. You can contact her at

Project co-leader, Dr Rowena Harper (University of South Australia), is the Head of Language and Literacy at UniSA, and is President of the Association for Academic Language and Learning. Rowena oversees UniSA’s approach to developing students’ academic and professional literacies and English language proficiency, as well as coordinating the University’s approach to academic integrity. You can contact her at

Project manager, Ms Sonia Saddiqui (University of South Australia), is a PhD candidate at Macquarie University School of Education and a freelance educational developer. She has previously managed two national projects in higher education. Sonia is also Secretary of the Asia-Pacific Forum on Educational Integrity.  You can contact her at

Project team member, Associate Professor Cath Ellis (UNSW) is the Associate Dean (Education) in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at UNSW. Cath’s research interests focus on eLearning, assessment feedback, management and analytics, and academic integrity. You can contact her at

Project team member, Professor Phil Newton (Swansea University, UK), is the Director of Learning and Teaching at Swansea University Medical School.  He has authored numerous publications on the topic of contract cheating in higher education, in the UK context. You can contact him at

Project team member, Ms Pearl Rozenberg (University of Sydney) is the Sub-Dean (Academic Policy and Administration) at the University of Sydney Business School. Pearl has led the University of Sydney Business School’s academic integrity program since 2007 and in 2015 served as a member of the University of Sydney Academic Misconduct and Plagiarism Working Party. You can contact her at

Project team member, Ms Karen van Haeringen (Griffith University), is Deputy Academic Registrar at Griffith University. She was a project member of the Exemplary Academic Integrity Project (2013-2014) and has been instrumental in drafting extensive, institutional-wide academic integrity policy change at Griffith University. You can contact her on

Reference Group

  • Associate Professor Michael Burton (University of Western Australia)
  • Professor Geoff Crisp (University of New South Wales)
  • Professor Shane Dawson (University of South Australia)
  • Associate Professor Kathleen Gray (University of Melbourne)
  • Dr Fiona Henderson (Victoria University) in 2011 and a VC Citation in 2012.
  • Mr Richard Lamb (University of South Australia) Group on Academic Integrity.
  • Dr Thomas Lancaster (Coventry University, UK)
  • Dr Ann Rogerson (University of Wollongong)
  • Mr Dave Tomar (freelance author)
  • Professor Dominic Verity (Macquarie University)