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Universities: Contract Cheating

Volume 792: debated on Wednesday 11 July 2018


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what action they are taking to ensure that every university in the United Kingdom is taking action to prevent contract cheating.

My Lords, contract cheating is unacceptable. It devalues the work of those students succeeding on their own merit and undermines the reputation of the sector. That is why the DfE worked with the QAA, Universities UK and the NUS to publish guidance last October to help providers tackle this issue. We have given the OfS power to take action if providers are complicit, including imposing fines or, ultimately, deregistering providers—the highest possible punishment.

I thank the noble Viscount. He will know that essay mills and contract cheating are part of a billion-pound worldwide organisation, with dozens of companies registered at Companies House. He will recall that in debate on an amendment of mine to the then Higher Education and Research Bill the Government agreed that, if this matter could not be dealt with by voluntary means, they would consider legislating. What issue would bring that legislation about?

I concur that in the passage of that Bill we did not discount the idea of legislating, but we are firmly of the opinion that we should look at the non-legislative approach. I know that the noble Lord is a key member of the academic integrity advisory group, which is doing some good work in conjunction with the QAA to look at the whole area of cheating. It is of course a fast-moving process because much cheating can be done over the internet.

My Lords, has my noble friend had an opportunity to look at the table in the Economic Affairs Committee’s report on higher education, which shows the huge increase in the number of students being awarded first-class degrees at some universities since the fees were increased to over £9,000? Does he suspect that the market in universities is now geared up to attracting students, and perhaps marketing their universities, on the basis of the number who can get first-class degrees? I exempt the University of Cambridge, which has seen no increase, yet at the University of Oxford those awards seem to have almost doubled, and at some universities it is by a factor of four and more.

The OfS of course takes responsibility for this and undertakes an annual analysis of degree classification trends at sector and provider level. It will publish its findings and directly challenge the sector where there is evidence. We welcome the UK Standing Committee for Quality Assessment’s work to define the standards for all classifications of degrees.

My Lords, the Minister will remember that when the Higher Education and Research Bill was before your Lordships’ House last year his colleague the noble Lord, Lord Young of Cookham, stated that legislation to counter cheating was not necessary and that he had asked the sector bodies to develop guidance with tough new penalties. The Minister just referred to that guidance, but it contains no penalties either tough or new. I noticed that he mentioned sanctions against institutions, but what about individuals? The emphasis is very much on prevention rather than cure, which is all right up to a point, but surely there comes a point when sanctions have to be taken against students on an individual basis. I shall repeat the question just asked by the noble Lord, Lord Storey, and again invite the Minister to say at what point the Government will conclude that guidance is not sufficient and that legislation targeting the providers is necessary to root out the source of this serious problem.

There are a number of questions there, but I say at the outset that it is often made clear when individuals sign on for courses that they have to be aware of the punishments for students who deliberately cheat. They include being sent down from university. That is made very clear. Some universities, including Nottingham and Oxford, demand an authorship signature from people submitting essays so that if something has gone wrong and they are seen to be cheating, it is down to them and they have signed for it.

My Lords, are the Government aware that the Australian Government have invested millions of dollars in supporting work to combat academic fraud? As my noble friend said, this is an international problem. What international co-operation are the Government considering to tackle this issue?

We are certainly aware of what some other countries are doing. For example, New Zealand legislated for such offences, as the noble Baroness may know, but there have been no prosecutions so far. Australia, the country that she mentioned, is adopting the same process as us—that is, it is looking at non-legislative guidance. There is no one way forward, so we are keen to continue with the process that we are undertaking.

My Lords, the claiming of spurious qualifications, particularly in the field of medicine and other areas, can lead to real harm to many individuals. Could my noble friend discuss with his colleagues the necessity of taking legislative action if we are not able to combat this in other ways?

I have already said that we have not discounted legislation, but my noble friend was perhaps referring to bogus degrees. We have the bogus degree project run by our contractor, Prospects, which seeks to identify and investigate illegitimate providers that mislead students by pretending to be degree-awarding bodies.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that cheating in universities is nothing when compared with the cheating in the EU referendum by Nigel Farage and his cronies? In the light of the report by the Electoral Commission, should the result of that referendum now be declared invalid?

The noble Lord is ingenious in stretching the range of the Question. I revert him back to its focus, which is exam cheating. Legislating is not particularly straightforward because the perpetrators are often international online companies, and offences need to be carefully considered to ensure any legitimate services.

My Lords, would the Minister return to the question from his noble friend Lord Cormack? As I understood him, he was not asking about bogus degrees; he was asking about securing legitimate degrees by bogus means, which is rather different. Would the Minister think about ways in which that might be combated, in view of his noble friend’s question?

Absolutely. There are a number of factors here, but the academic integrity advisory group is working on that aspect as well, as part of focusing on bogus degrees but also on cheating in exams.