Last semester, the method of testing students migrated from the seated rows of exam halls to the space of one’s own bedroom as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. With this necessary distancing between students and superintendents, came a further distance from the usual observation and close inspection of an exam hall. The Union of Students in Ireland (USI) have now launched a campaign to help students combat the temptation “to take shortcuts to academic success if you’re under pressure.”
Quality and Qualifications Ireland (QQI) released a report in late August which studied the impact of COVID-19 on teaching, learning and assessment in Higher Education Institutions (HEIs). The report documented that by “many institutions replacing invigilated, in-person written examinations with online exams there were greater opportunities for cheating in the second semester of the 2019/2020 academic year than normal.”
The USI’s #MyOwnWork campaign seeks to create a culture of academic integrity in students which ‘essay mills’ will find hard to puncture; a service which offers custom-written assignments, essays and even PhD theses for students to purchase and submit as their own work. The increase in the use of essay mills in recent years has led to the introduction of legislation making it an offence to use, advertise or promote such services.
UK-based research suggests that up to 1 in 7 graduates have availed of essay mills – known as ‘contract cheating’ – to produce college work. It is estimated that at least six major providers operate in Ireland, with one charging upwards of €15 per 300 words, another €150 for 2,500 words.
According to figures compiled by The Irish Times, there were at least 2,334 third-level students found to be cheating in the eight years between 2010 and 2018. Business students at UCD were noted as the “most likely to cheat” (through smart phones in exam halls, etc.) with arts students the worst offenders of plagiarism whether committed through essay mills, or mere improper citation. Such figures exclude UCC, NUIG and UL – each state they do not collect the relevant data.
As of May 2020, UCC has updated its Plagiarism Policy to include remote examinations. “Whether done deliberately or inadvertently, it is unacceptable,” it reads before detailing the procedures and penalties a student is confronted with if suspected of breaching the rules. Suspicion can be raised by the software of TurnitIn or any examiner or supervisor, this is then brought to the attention of the Head of School or Department and later, the Student Records and Examinations Office. A student will fail the exam or module if plagiarism is found. If it is under doubt, the possible marks at a repeat examination will be capped. According to the USI #MyOwnWork campaign, “you can lose your place on your course, have your degree revoked or have your marks downgraded.”
If approached by an essay mill service, students are advised to report this to Quality and Qualifications Ireland at myownwork.qqi.ie. In an attempt to dissuade students from turning to cheating and plagiarism, the QQI provides a list of supports available at each HEI to ensure a sense of academic integrity can be maintained at each assessment. Those listed for UCC are the Academic Skills Centre, the University Plagiarism Policy, and the Students’ Union. Virtual writing clinics have been launched by the Skills Centre for the duration of the pandemic, where students can engage synchronously or asynchronously with a tutor to receive feedback on work, as well as how to improve their academic writing.