University exam design crucial to stopping cheating, UK academics told

An advisor to the UK’s Quality Assurance Agency says academics must “up their game” on assessments in the post-pandemic world

Universities must strengthen protections against plagiarism and cheating as the number of in-person tests declines post-pandemic, a senior higher education executive has said. 

Michael Draper, a member of the Quality Assurance Agency’s (QAA) advisory committee and dean of regulation and student cases at Swansea University, spoke at the event organised by the Westminister Higher Education Forum. 

He told delegates that academics must “up their game” when it came to assessments, which could be easier to cheat as take-home exams become more commonplace. The QAA is the UK regulator for degrees, classifications and exams and assessments.

“I can’t see that we’re going to go back to in-person examinations in the way that we have pre-pandemic used those forms of assessment. And therefore, we are going to need to up our game as academics in relation to assessments,” Draper said, adding that any aspect of a test not conducted in an exam hall “has the opportunity to have third-party involvement in that assessment”. 

“I think there is a link between online assessment, contract cheating, academic misconduct and grade inflation as well that we’re going to have to consider,” he said. 

Essay mills – just one potential threat to academic integrity and fair assessments – are set to be banned by the Skills and Post-16 Education Bill, which awaits royal assent after clearing parliament earlier this year. 

Essay mills are commercial entities that make money by encouraging students to cheat. While some are based in the UK, they are a global phenomenon impacting on higher education systems and providers around the world. Their use has the potential to damage the reputation of UK higher education.

Typically, essay mills will charge a student to write their assessment, which the student will then submit as their own work. They will often use sophisticated marketing techniques, and some will resort to blackmail or extortion once students have used their services. Research by Swansea University indicates their use by students has increased in recent years but that less than one per cent are caught.

Last year the Office for Students and Jisc warned universities that contract cheating services were using “increasingly sophisticated” ways to advertise their services, such as hacking university websites to secrete links to content that seems legitimate but promote cheating services.

In 2020, Douglas Blackstock, QAA CEO, said: “The essay mill industry has become increasingly sophisticated and exists to make money by encouraging students to cheat. Students at every university or college in the UK will be targeted by them.”

Also appearing at the conference was QAA director of corporate affairs Tom Yates. 

Mr Yates suggested that the “biggest impact” of the new legislation in England “is likely to be on marketing and advertising” of essay mills rather than prosecutions, adding that he thought the legislation would “remove the temptation for many [students]”. 

He said the law would “chang[e] the dynamic for students…[who] will know that if they use an essay mill, they will be engaging with a criminal entity, and we can’t claim that’s been the case hitherto.” 

Read more: Jisc and Royal Society of Chemistry extend open access deal

Leave a Reply

Free live webinar & QA

The digital difference - Build a culture of reading with ebooks & audiobooks

Free Education Webinar with OverDrive

Friday, June 24, 2PM London BST

In this webinar, hear from Havant Academy Librarian Joanna Parsons to learn how she uses ebooks and audiobooks to help boost reading among her secondary students.