Students are enticed into cheating in college by commercial tryouts offering buy-one-free offers, loyalty programs and consumer-style cashback offers, a conference has said.
Experts have warned of a growing “normalization” of cheating in higher education, with the shift to online assessment that began during the pandemic making it easier and more common for students to seek outside help.
They also warned of the growing availability of AI-powered essay-writing tools, which are becoming increasingly sophisticated, giving students even more opportunities to cheat to try and improve their grades.
The government is introducing legislation to ban test mills and their advertising, but experts fear there will be few prosecutions as most are based overseas and therefore beyond the scope of the legislation. It will initially only apply to England, with limited application to Wales.
Tuesday’s Westminster Higher Education Forum virtual conference heard that essay mills – which sell essays or written materials to a commission of students – are now using comparison websites as part of an increasing marketing of their services.
Michael Draper, professor of legal education at Swansea University and an expert in academic integrity and cheating, said: ‘At last count I think there were over a thousand sites on a comparison site , with more arriving every month. It’s a huge number.
“Increasing commercial pressures of the type we normally find in supermarkets are having an impact on students. So many of these sites offer, for example, buy-one-free or loyalty programs, or in some cases I’ve seen cashback.
When students attempt to withdraw, they may be blackmailed, targeted with bogus legal letters. The conference was told it was “organized crime”, with reports that some writing is provided by authors from sub-Saharan Africa who are also open to exploitation.
Draper said students whose school education has been disrupted by the pandemic will be particularly vulnerable when they enter higher education. “Students are increasingly reporting the pressure they feel, but also the impostor syndrome. They just don’t feel ready to take on the challenges of higher education, learning and assessment and we will have to address that,” he said.
He also warned that students are unwittingly donating their own valuable writing materials using free online tools to check spelling or grammar, which can then end up on the web where they can be picked up and used – or sold by someone else.
Other students tried to make a profit themselves by selling their own work, Draper said. “I have also seen ‘entrepreneurial’ activities of students essentially selling their own materials from previous levels directly to other students. The students themselves are therefore jumping on this bandwagon towards standardization.
The conference was told that collusion, where students work together to complete an assessment that should be taken independently, has become a serious issue over the past two years, especially with the shift to online assessment, which probably played into the inflation of ratings. .
Tom Yates, director of corporate affairs at the Quality Assurance Agency, the independent body that verifies standards and quality in UK higher education, welcomed the new test-mill legislation and said it would lead a change in the dynamic that exists for students.
“Essentially, students will know that if they use a test mill they will be engaging with a criminal entity, and we cannot pretend that has been the case thus far, and that should remove the temptation for many “, did he declare.