The EduBirdie pandemic: the rise of contract cheating in Higher Education

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Last week’s headlines saw a clash between YouTube and EduBirdie, a Ukraine-based business that sells “custom” assignments to students: “If you can’t write that essay, EduBirdie can”. Higher Education (HE) providers will no doubt welcome YouTube’s move to take down videos promoting EduBirdie, on the basis of breaches of its advertising policies.

As YouTube deals with the backlash, HE providers are reminded of the challenges posed by contract cheating, that is, where a student pays a third party to complete an assignment, and then submits it as their own.

What are the challenges for HE providers?

The rising threat of contract cheating and “essay mills” (companies that sell essays) has created concern for HE providers across the globe. Last month, the Times Higher Education observed “pressures on students and lenience among academics have sown the seeds for a potential explosion in fraudsters”. Some blame increased tuition fees for this increased pressure on students.

Others blame social media and the prevalence of advertising by companies offering bespoke, “plagiarism-fee” essays for affordable sums. Concerns reached a new level when famous YouTubers plugged EduBirdie’s services during videos otherwise concerned with topics such as pranks and dating.

All HE providers are bound to ensure that appropriate standards of education are upheld, and that modes of assessment are reliable and effective ways of testing students’ learning. Assignments purchased from essay mills can be difficult to spot, and essay mills pride themselves on being undetectable by plagiarism-checking software. So what can be done?

How should HE providers respond to these challenges?

Whilst HE providers may be reluctant to impose arduous changes on the greater student and/or staff populations, when contract cheating still appears to be conducted by the relatively few, we recommend the following steps are taken to prevent this, and to protect the integrity of providers’ awards:

  1. Review academic misconduct policies to ensure any definitions of “plagiarism”, “cheating”, and other relevant offences are appropriate, and that the available sanctions accurately reflect the seriousness of each offence. Consider making specific reference to contract cheating.
  2. Educate students at the outset of programmes about the meaning of contract cheating and prepare them for being subject to advertising by essay mills. Advise them of the academic offences that are likely to be committed if they purchase assignments from essay mills and the possible sanctions, which should include withdrawal or expulsion. Students should also be warned of the possible consequences for their future study and career if they are found to have committed an academic offence.
  3. Provide further, comprehensive information about the policies for academic misconduct at key stages, such as when assignment titles are given, shortly prior to submission dates, and/or at the beginning of each term or semester.
  4. Ensure additional support is available to students who may struggle with assignments, such as skills sessions covering time management, essay writing, and research.
  5. Where appropriate, consider the introduction of more oral examinations or group exercises.
  6. Get to know the writing styles of the students. Getting to grips with individual writing styles can help identify when a student has used third party services to write an assignment.
  7. Introduce blocks on websites for essay mills, to provide for an extra barrier for students to penetrate.

Concluding thoughts

Is the increase in the promotion of services like EduBirdie set to unleash the feared pandemic of contract cheating? It is reassuring that YouTube has stepped up and enforced its advertising policies to remove recent offending adverts. However, essay mills can make for good business, and we will no doubt see further forms of creative advertising.

In the meantime, following our above recommendations should help to promote an open and constructive environment for staff and students when it comes to assessments. A principled and firm approach to academic offences will ensure the seriousness of the wrongdoing is affirmed to the accused and the wider student body.

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