A new study suggests far more university students are cheating than previously thought. 

Four times as many university students are using commercial contract cheating services than previous studies showed, according to new research by University of Western Australia applied psychologist Guy Curtis. 

A survey of 4,098 students at Australian tertiary institutions taken at the end of last year estimates 7.9 per cent of students pay commercial sites to ghostwrite assignments for them and 11.4 per cent use file-sharing sites - these two practices are both regarded as cheating.

Previous research had estimated that between two and 3.5 per cent of students use assignments written by other people.

“It’s not a problem that can be solved with one action or at one level,” Dr Curtis says. 

“What TEQSA (the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency) is doing in blocking and prosecuting sites is good because that reduces students’ opportunities and it discourages companies from advertising in Australia. 

“Our biggest problem is detection.”

Dr Curtis said plagiarism detector programs like Turnitin are of some use, as is guidance, information and training for academics offered by TEQSA.

Ghostwriters offer assignments customised to students’ specific assessment tasks, and may be original works, so they do not turn up in plagiarism tests. 

File-sharing does not always involve payment - some systems allow students to upload lecture materials of their own such in exchange for “credits” that enable them to download materials uploaded by others. 

The experts say file-sharing is probably more frequent than ghostwriting, and may not fall under Australian anti-cheating legislation if no money changes hands.

Additionally, the study found students for whom English is not a first language are more likely to admit cheating. 

“If you’re not being taught in the language that you natively speak, education is going to be that much harder,” Dr Curtis said. 

“There is a temptation to seek help in a way that you may not even be comfortable with. I would think that would be particularly the case for students who are worried that their visa might be under threat.

“Those students have inadequate English, but they don’t want to leave and they don’t want to fail, and they don’t want to waste their money for the qualification as the outcome.

“You’ve got to watch your entry standards for English, but you’ve also got to support the students who don’t have English as a first language so that if they need additional help doing assessments, they get it — rather than have them feel desperate and take a shortcut like this where ultimately there’s no assessment of their knowledge because it’s someone else’s knowledge.

“That’s certainly a policy issue for universities to think about, if the trade-off is going to be that we either let in students of a certain standard or we let in students below that standard and then we try to help them. The big question is going to be, is the amount of help you have to give them worth the additional revenue that those students are going to bring in?”