Academic Cheating Has Skyrocketed in Canada Amid Pandemic, Leaving Post-Secondary Students Vulnerable

May 23, 2021

With academic cheating on the rise during the pandemic – and some universities reporting an increase in cases as high as 38 per cent – now is the time for Canada to take action, not only to sanction students but also to protect them.  

That’s the message of leading academic misconduct expert Sarah Elaine Eaton, who will be a featured speaker at the upcoming Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences.

Eaton, an associate professor at the University of Calgary and author of the newly-released Plagiarism and Higher Education – who estimated in 2018 that more than 71,000 Canadian post-secondary students might be engaged in contract cheating, or outsourcing their academic work to commercial suppliers, such as term paper mills – is issuing a call to action for Canadian decision-makers to start tracking the problem in our country and pass legislation that will make it illegal for contract cheating companies to operate here.

“Contract cheating, which includes essay mills, assignment completion services, thesis-writing and exam personation, is now a global, online US$15 billion industry and we’ve yet to take nationwide action to stop it,” said Eaton, noting the strategy to date is to lay blame squarely on students. “If there’s a bad guy in this story, it’s not the students – it’s the predatory contract cheating companies who are going after them in unprecedented ways,” she said.

Preying on the fact that university students are facing extraordinarily stressful times during COVID-19, contract cheating companies are using social media platforms such as TikTok, Instagram and Reddit to offer services under the guise of help, she explained. “They’re positioning universities as being old-fashioned, with regular office hours and no real desire to offer support,” Eaton said. “The companies send a clear message that ‘We’re here for you 24/7’ and students start to see them as heroes. It’s very sophisticated marketing.”

As Eaton explained, the problem is that once a student uses a service, what started out as an act of desperation can quickly become a much larger issue. “Increasingly, contract companies subject students to harassment and bullying to get them to agree to additional services and in extreme cases, are resorting to blackmail, including charging the student’s credit card a fee and threatening to report their misconduct if they try to stop it,” she said.

With Eaton’s research clearly showing that students are not aware of the risks, and some actually believing the services are legitimate because they use tutoring as a front, she is urging Canadian decision-makers to follow the lead of Australia and the U.K., which have taken steps to combat contract cheating through legislation. Academic outsourcing services of any kind are now illegal in Australia, and the U.K. is considering withdrawing degrees from both suppliers of cheating services and students who use them.

“The problem is real and it’s big, and Canadian institutions are doing very little to combat it,” said Eaton, who would ideally like to see a national Quality Assurance council established in Canada. “In the end, cheating devalues the credentials that students receive. We need to educate students, faculty, administrators, and ultimately, we need legislation against this.”