The billion-dollar industry helping students at major Australian universities cheat online assessments
While Australia sleeps, Ramesh is flipping cheeseburgers.
He works the overnight shift at a fast-food shop. It's tedious, exhausting work, and when he clocks off at 7.30am, he needs to dash across town to sneak through the door for a 9am lecture.
Most days he never makes it.
"I'm always late, you physically cannot do it, if you're working all night, you cannot come to 9am class."
He borrowed $50,000 to pay for his university degree, which means he literally can't afford to fail.
But he also can't afford to lose his job. And, being an international student, he doesn't have access to Centrelink support like his domestic-student counterparts.
"You have to perform, you have to hustle and you have to not let people down."
In his desperate attempt to juggle work and study, Ramesh has found a solution. He cheats.
"It's not just a temptation, you have to do it to pass exams," he says.
International students are over-represented in cheating statistics.
Ramesh doesn't want to use his real name, fearing repercussions from his university.
He isn't worried about getting caught, because he says everyone's doing it.
"You don't get caught … you're at home and there's no supervision, so there's no chance of getting caught."
And in the post-COVID era of online assessments, he has some powerful new allies — billion-dollar companies which have been accused of being industrialised cheating factories.
They market themselves as study aids, but they profit enormously from helping students cheat, and they boomed during the pandemic with the shift to online learning.
In a single month in 2020, cheating websites received around 7.3 million clicks from Australian students, an increase of 50 per cent on 2019 figures, according to Australia's academic integrity regulator.
Since then those monthly hits have fallen back but still remain above pre-pandemic levels at 5.9 million hits.
And one of the biggest players is a company called Chegg.
A student from a university in Queensland is sitting a multiple-choice nursing exam online.
And question three is a doozy.
"A 102-year-old female nursing home resident reports to her nurse on a monthly check-up that she is feeling progressively more lethargic … which endocrine condition is she most likely to be suffering from?"
The student is stumped. But instead of guessing, they take a screenshot of the question and upload it to a "homework help" website.
Before long the answer arrives.
"Option C is the correct answer. She is most likely suffering from diabetes mellitus."
The website is called Chegg and a quick search reveals students from all of Australia's major universities are using it.
For little more than a Netflix subscription, students can upload questions, and get the correct answers in minutes.
Many are uploading questions in the middle of exams, sometimes in defiance of anti-cheat software designed to catch them out.
"Chegg is not a legitimate student service, they primarily provide cheating services," says Professor Phillip Dawson, an expert in academic integrity from Deakin University.
"Their profits come from helping students to cheat and I would be amazed if they don't know this."
The company's takings have grown spectacularly over the pandemic. This year, Chegg is expecting to rake in $1.1 billion in revenue — nearly double what it was bringing in before the pandemic.
Every month, around 30 million people visit the website, and it has around 7.8 million subscribers — that's more than three times what it was before the pandemic.
The company is worth around $3.7 billion, and it expects to just keep growing.
Chegg declined an interview but a spokesperson told the ABC the company takes cheating seriously and is "deeply committed to academic integrity".
"We take any attempts to misuse our platform extremely seriously.
"We make our terms of service, including our extensive honour code, very clear to our users and we also cooperate with official university investigations into allegations of cheating."
It doesn't endorse the use of its services to cheat, but it does champion the student cause.
According to Chegg, students are increasingly older, overworked, underpaid and therefore discriminated against by an inflexible university system that fails to support them.
"You're dealing with entrenched institutions who, despite what you think they're supposed to do, do not focus on the needs of the student," Chegg's chief executive, Dan Rosensweig, said during an interview in March.
"[Our services] are for students who historically have been ignored, under served, they're predominantly women, they over-index people of colour, they over-index people living pay cheque to pay cheque. We're built for people who need high-quality, low-cost, on-demand support, at two in the morning or two in the afternoon."
Kane Murdoch is the manager of Complaints, Appeals and Misconduct at Macquarie University, and he's pretty blunt when asked about the level of cheating being detected.
"I'd say we're probably detecting a fairly low amount," he says.
He divides time into BC and AC — Before Covid and After Covid. He says cheating services are evolving faster than universities' attempts to stop them.
"If we fail to change our assessments fundamentally, not just kind of fiddling at the edges … we're going to be engaged in that race and we're probably not going to win," he says.
"We need to change our structures and our systems to effectively reduce the impulse to cheat".
There's a lot at stake. He says one of the main things the public expects from universities are high-quality graduates.
"If we can't assure the public that the students that come out of our halls are who we say they are, I think that's a dark path to go down," he says.
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Some universities have turned to online anti-cheat software to catch and deter the cheats. One 2020 study found that half of all Australian universities used some form of surveillance during exams.
Students download software onto their personal computers and then consent to be watched through their webcam.
Their behaviour is monitored for any unusual activity. Sometimes a real person is even at the other end of that webcam watching the student.
But there's little research to show whether these types of software effectively detect cheating. Murdoch questions whether they work at all: "I don't think they're very good at picking up cheating".
He says the software mistakes normal behaviours for cheating, which creates a huge workload for universities that have to wade through many false positives.
"If we think about sitting in a room doing an exam — a normal sit-down exam — we might stare at the ceiling, we might kind of breathe weirdly, we might turn our head, we're not sitting there staring rigidly into a screen," he says.
"Universities just don't have that people power to be able to sit there and review that, they'll very quickly become bogged down."
Murdoch also believes the software is a gross invasion of privacy. He's heard stories of students being "surveilled" in busy households with children running around, or in the car park of a fast-food outlet with free wifi, or, mostly, in their bedrooms.
"I can understand that students would be deeply uncomfortable about the idea of an unknown commercial entity or the university having that level of kind of surveillance — a view into their own home," he says.
"That'd be deeply problematic and I'm against it simply for that reason, let alone all the others."
Two women are accused of poisoning their own children at the same hospital. They say it tore their lives apart.
Two years ago, in September 2020, the federal government announced its solution to online cheating.
"We have made contract cheating a crime," said then education minister, Dan Tehan.
"Organised cheating threatens the integrity of our universities and undermines the hard work done by honest students."
A suite of new powers were handed to the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency, including the ability to apply to the Federal Court to block websites it suspects of providing cheating services.
The timing could not have been better. As the pandemic took hold and teaching moved from campus to university, students were accessing cheating websites in record numbers.
The agency built up a database of 2,333 suspected commercial academic cheating service websites, of which 579 sites were targeting Australian students.
But since those laws came into effect, the agency has only blocked two websites.
The head of TEQSA's academic integrity unit, Helen Gniel, says those websites were test cases and that the agency is now in a good position to be taking some "far more pervasive action" in coming weeks.
"It may look like only two websites have been blocked, [but] there's been a tremendous amount of work that the team's been doing in the background with a view to undertaking some pretty significant enforcement action in the coming weeks.
"… It's a longer process than everyone would like, of course, but it's really important that that process does have integrity and that we're blocking the appropriate websites,"
But website blocking is not a complete solution, with Dr Gniel conceding students can easily bypass the block using a VPN.
"We're certainly aware of the limitations of website blocking … I think it's still a really important act to take."
University of Adelaide MBA student, Yegs, is exhausted.
"Yesterday, I studied until around 2am and woke up at 9am," she says.
"I feel like sometimes I'm really trying to fit a 46-hour schedule into a 24-hour day, and that's if I don't sleep, by the way."
She has midterm exams coming up and they're worth around 30 per cent of her grade.
To help study she uses "quiz banks" — databases of questions used by universities for exams and assignments.
Universities often recycle questions from one year to the next, and the answers can make their way into quiz banks.
As a result, they are not just practice questions, but often the actual questions used in exams.
Deakin University's Dr Phillip Dawson says quiz banks are highly problematic.
"They definitely cross a line," he says.
"It is cheating to have the exam answers while you're studying, that's not the way the exam was designed."
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Yegs sees the use of quiz banks as no different to a textbook. Her most recent exam was open book.
"If I want to find an answer to a question … I just search for it in the textbook and it comes up word for word — we don't constitute that as cheating."
She says she doesn't use the quiz banks to cheat, but instead completes her exams the old fashioned way, using her knowledge and skills.
But she can understand why some students might use them during an exam, and she doesn't have a problem with it.
She feels like universities are more competitive than ever, and the odds are stacked against international students like her.
"I'm competing against domestic students which, in most cases, employers prefer. I have to make sure that all aspects of my resume are perfect, including my grade-point average."
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The billion-dollar industry helping students at major Australian universities cheat online assessments