A UAE education ethics expert has said dozens of easily accessible "cash for answers" websites are profiting from learners taking shortcuts to success.
A study by Dr Zeenath Khan, professor of cyber ethics and academic integrity at the University of Wollongong in Dubai, identified 34 rogue businesses “aggressively” promoting so-called contract cheating services online.
Contract cheating is when a pupil or student gets someone else to complete their work for them, often in exchange for money.
From as little as $40 (Dh150) for an answer to an exam question to thousands of dollars for a 10,000-word report, a quick search online is all it takes to find a number of unscrupulous businesses in the UAE offering their services for cash.
Dr Khan said reducing amounts of homework could help to address the problem and that dependency on cheating often stemmed from relatives helping out with previous projects.
“The websites showed up easily, repeatedly and were clicked by users on Google and Bing when the words 'essay writing', 'assignment writing' or 'ghost writing' in the UAE were typed,” said Dr Khan.
“This is highly concerning to all universities and institutions because it means these sites are regularly visited and are aggressively marketing their unethical services to students.”
In 2020, Dr Khan helped to establish the region’s first Centre for Academic Integrity.
Based at the University of Wollongong in Dubai, it brings together educators, students and industry experts to promote honest and moral behaviour in an academic setting.
Closer scrutiny of school work required
Dr Khan said the way in which schools structure work in primary and high schools can play a big role in deterring people from turning to contract cheating later in life.
Limiting the amount of homework means teachers can monitor what work a child is doing in lessons, as parents often take a lead on home projects but allow their children to take credit for the work.
“When we think of contract cheating, we tend to think of third parties being online services but actually, oftentimes, it could be a family member or friend that ends up completing work or projects for pupils,” she said.
“That is a real problem as pupils then think it is OK for somebody else to do a project for them, which can mushroom into a habit of getting people to do their work.
“The way we structure work and projects in schools and universities needs to change so that it is more engaging and more easily monitored.”
Dr Khan said academic cheating websites brazenly advertise their services, with recent examples boasting a “buy one essay get one free during Ramadan”, which can lure students.
Legislation to tackle academic fraud
In October last year, the UK government tabled an amendment to ban essay mills, businesses which allow people to commission others to complete academic work on their behalf for a fee.
The legislation, which passed through Westminster last month, has now been given the required royal approval to become law.
Now, universities and colleges will have a duty to make it clear to students that using an essay mill means engaging with a criminal entity.
But Dr Khan said this is only one part of a broader sector-wide effort to protect and promote academic integrity.
“The key step is to focus on the positive awareness campaign so that we have a change in behaviour, perspectives and expectations in the educational setting,” she said.
“We need to start this conversation as young as possible, from foundation stages, and then build that up across primary school and high school classes into tertiary education.
“If we do that, we won't need the legislation.”
Knowing why learners cheat is crucial
Despite several countries making contract cheating services illegal, experts agree that awareness is the route to change.
Dr Thomas Lancaster, a senior teaching fellow at Imperial College London, has carried out several studies into academic integrity.
As part of his research, he identified “thousands of requests from students covering literally any academic subject”.
“There are lots of reasons why students engage in contract cheating,” he said.
“Often it’s because of pressure. They are busy working and cannot concentrate on their assessments. Sometimes they want to get a higher mark. Sometimes it is just out of desperation.”
Pandemic prompted cheating surge
During the pandemic, he said he saw a large increase in the number of online requests for contract cheating, which suggested students were taking advantage of the lack of supervision in online exams.
“My own research found nearly a 200 per cent increase through a site which students regularly use to get help, often with exam-style questions being posted with a request by the student to get the answers back quickly.”
He said educating students early about the negative effects of cheating was necessary to curb the practice.
Dr Lancaster said heavy advertising of assignment providers online and in person can cause students to cheat who would not otherwise have considered having done so.
“I welcome the ban on essay mills and contract cheating services promoting services to students in the UK but we can’t rely solely on the law,” he said.
“We have to make sure that assignments are interesting and structured in such a way that students feel they are benefiting from learning and completing them.”