You’ll Never Guess What Happened When Australia Banned Cheating In College

Lawmakers in Australia have recently made it illegal to arrange or advertise for sale certain cheating services, namely paid essay writing, also known as contract cheating.

Paid essays are usually bespoke, written on demand based on student and assignment requirements. Visit a paid essay site and post an ad that you need 700 words on the battle of Yorktown, for example, and you’ll get dozens of people quoting competitive prices, fast results and guarantees of originality. There are hundreds of sites that offer the service, representing thousands of writers. Many heavily advertise to college students. It’s a form of cheating that’s shockingly common, difficult to catch, and fueling a billion dollar global market of dishonesty.

So, Australia passed a law prohibiting it. The law went into effect in early September and carries some stiff sanctions – up to two years in jail and a fine of up to $74,000 (A$100,000).

And you’ll never guess what’s happened as a result.

According to news reporting, many of the biggest and best-known essay mills are ending their operations there.

That’s good news. Essay peddlers are a pernicious stain on academia and perhaps retreating from Australia will crimp their customer base and strain the market. But even if it does not, it’s good to put some distance between dishonest students seeking shortcuts and those who profit by providing them.

And the timing could not be better. With millions of students suddenly shuffled online to combat Covid-19, away from the eyes of professors and encouraged by the loose nature of online learning, cheating has spiked.  It’s a good time to be seen as cracking down.

And the optics may be the most important part of the new law. Ample research on academic cheating shows that one of the best ways to reduce it is to talk about it, making students aware of your awareness, sending the message that those in authority know it’s happening. In fact, when schools and teachers don’t send that message, when they ignore it, students take silence as permission to cheat – they actually think teachers want them to. Therefore, simply having the law, talking about it, setting penalties, is probably, all on its own, deterring misconduct. Again, that’s good.

Though the news coverage does not mention it directly, Australia isn’t necessarily being pro-active against cheating as much as it’s being reactive, responding to a major cheating scandal that erupted there a few years ago. The contours were that a media outlet found that about 100 students had paid for essays and stand-in test-takers for online tests at some of the country’s top schools. Frankly, all anyone had to do was look. Nonetheless, there were expulsions, degree revocations and firings. It was enormous news and deeply embarrassing.

Now, five years later, much of what triggered that scandal is illegal — in Australia anyway.

And that’s why it matters here, in the U.S.

The major news outlet outside Australia to cover the law and its impact, Times Higher Ed, has a global focus but is based in the U.K. It wrote in its coverage that the Australia law was, “highlighting how countries including the UK risk falling behind” in the fight against essay mills. It said that essay mills could still be accessed without penalty in the UK and therefore, repeating, “it was at risk of falling behind.”

That’s probably right. But if the UK may fall behind Australia and Ireland (which has also banned essay contract cheating), the United States is being lapped. Maybe that’s unfair. It’s more accurate to say we are not even on the racetrack. It’s not even entirely clear that we are aware a race is being run.

That’s because, for reasons that defy understanding, education leaders in the United States refuse to even acknowledge the problem, let alone act to curb it.  My assumption about why Americans seem to lack awareness of contract cheating is embarrassment. Admitting that people are cheating is humiliating and raises the unavoidable question of what should be done about it, when it’s easier and less expensive to do nothing. In the U.S., the denial of cheating is so complete that is flirts with complicity.

It is true that a legal prohibition would not stop contract cheating and essay purchasing entirely because there’s too much money in it, too many eager buyers for it to just evaporate. And it’s a dark art to start. Moreover, essay mills frequently masquerade as tutors or writing advisors and force their buyers to agree to legal disclaimers with the laughable warning that what they’re buying is not to be turned in for academic credit. It is a complicated ecosystem.

But that does not excuse doing nothing. Most illicit marketplaces are complicated. All of them dislike attention. And it does turn out that, as Australia is showing, if you ban something, put penalties in place, tell people you’re looking for it, some people are less likely to do it. Australia’s ability to essentially run essay mills out of the country shows what can be done if U.S. lawmakers want to do something – anything – about it. It may also make you wonder why they won’t.


Author: Derek Newton

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