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Speech: Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency Amendment (Prohibiting Academic Cheating Services) Bill 2019

Speeches in Parliament
Mehreen Faruqi 24 Aug 2020

I rise on behalf of the Greens to speak to the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency Amendment (Prohibiting Academic Cheating Services) Bill 2019. This is indeed a serious issue. I thank the stakeholders across the sector for the time they've taken to engage with the bill throughout the process. In recognition for the need for stronger protections against commercial contract cheating operations, the Greens will not oppose this legislation. But we do have deeply held concerns about the approach it takes to addressing academic issues within our universities and the impact the bill will have on students, on their friends families and on academic communities.

In the first instance, it's not at all clear that the threat of penalties like those contained in this bill effectively deter contract cheating operations. In 2019, research from Melbourne and Toronto examining real incidents of contract cheating online found that heavy penalties on contract cheating seemed not to be limiting the impunity with which it occurs. They concluded:

We do not think supply-side approaches to the contract cheating problem are likely to have any significant positive effects. Even worse, they direct resources away from other approaches, and they may have unintended negative consequences for students.

It is those negative consequences for students that I'm particularly concerned about. The first version of this bill needlessly exposed individuals such as family and friends of students to significant penalties, including jail time. So I was glad to see that revised after feedback from our office that came from many in the sector. I'm also pleased that our comments resulted in amendments to the definition of a cheating service, a definition which lacked clarity and risked criminalising or disrupting perfectly normal collegial behaviour and collaboration to the detriment of students' learning.

Unfortunately, the second version of the bill—the one that is before us today—still exposes individuals to civil penalties of more than $110,000. Whereas universities are not well placed to tackle large commercial providers of cheating services, they are best placed to identify and respond to inappropriate, non-commercial assistance provided to students by peers or family and friends. This is not an issue that we want universities to pass the buck on to TEQSA, nor are these penalties remotely commensurate with the low-grade academic misconduct that universities should actually be resourced to deal with. As such, it remains completely inappropriate to expose individuals to the civil penalties this legislation prescribes for commercial providers. I do note that there's been a lot of language from the minister and the department about the supposed targets of this bill not being students or their friends or families, and I hope that that is the case. But it's easy for us to guarantee that today, by restricting the application of both the civil and criminal penalties in this legislation to commercial providers of cheating services alone. I will be moving an amendment to that effect.

The broader issue here, for which this government is as culpable as any other, is that decades of systematic underfunding of our universities has put them in a funding situation where it is easier to surveil and sanction students than to support them. In this, we are seeing a shameful tendency towards increasingly strict monitoring as an antidote to a lack of meaningful connection between students and their teachers. This legislation's punitive response to academic misconduct reflects that. So too do the concerning reports of universities rapidly adopting exam surveillance software with little regard for the privacy implications or the impact on their students' learning experience. The use of this software must stop. More recently, the government's craven plan to strip HELP loan support from students who fail more than half their subjects reflects the government's drive to police and punish where it should provide support and help. Blame for this should be laid squarely at the feet of successive governments, whose cuts to funding have seen university class sizes grow and the quality time academics get to spend with their students diminish. If the government's cruel uni cuts and fee hikes get through, this situation will only worsen. There is no question about that.

In my own experience as a university lecturer and course coordinator, I can frankly say that this legislation is no way to stop non-commercial participants in organised cheating. Why? Because it does not and cannot address the underlying causes of students' cheating. Let's not delude ourselves that these are simple cases of lazy students looking for a way to avoid the work on an essay or an assignment. We know that pressures like the financial consequences of failing a subject or academic requirements for visa retention are often present in cheating circumstances. This bill and the rest of the government's higher education policy settings do nothing to fix this. And that's not to mention the broader circumstances that are systematically denying students the opportunity to attend to their studies without worrying day to day about making ends meet, putting food on the table or having a roof over their heads. Even before the pandemic, it was all too common for students to work multiple jobs and live pay cheque to pay cheque, reliant on meagre government support. Many often went hungry. All of these conditions have worsened during the pandemic, as the move to online learning has isolated students from opportunities to seek support and has limited academics' ability to assist a student before they begin to engage in academic misconduct.

My firm view is that academic integrity is best protected, in the first instance, by adequately funding education and training providers, where low student-staff ratios allow staff to ensure integrity by developing an individual understanding of each student's abilities in order to detect and address issues before they become misconduct. I say this based on a number of years of experience. This approach comes with the benefits of improved educational outcomes. Instead of the attacks they are suffering from those opposite at the moment, our public universities and TAFE institutions need substantial long-term increases in government funding to allow them to provide the best possible education. We know thousands of university staff have already lost their jobs and thousands more are set to lose their jobs by the end of this year. Who knows what's going to happen next year? Yet this government is set upon cutting further funding from universities and hiking fees for students. It's absolutely abhorrent and shameful. It is cruel and callous. The Greens will work to block these attacks at every turn, and we will fight to see all students supported through free university and TAFE throughout their lives.

HANSARD LINK

Amendments

I move Greens amendments (1), (2) and (3) on sheet 8866 together:

(1) Schedule 1, item 10, page 5 (lines 23 and 24), at the end of the heading to subsection 114A(1), add "—criminal offence ".

[civil penalty for academic cheating services—consequential]

(2) Schedule 1, item 10, page 6 (lines 10 to 17), omit subsection 114A(3), substitute:

Providing etc. an academic cheating service for a commercial purpose—civil penalty

(3) A person contravenes this subsection if the person provides, offers to provide or arranges for a third person to provide an academic cheating service:

(a) to a student undertaking, with a higher education provider:

(i) an Australian course of study; or

(ii) an overseas course of study provided at Australian premises; and

(b) for a commercial purpose.

Civil penalty: 500 penalty units.

[civil penalty for academic cheating services]

(3) Schedule 1, item 10, page 7 (lines 12 to 17), omit subsection 114B(2), substitute:

(2) A person contravenes this subsection if:

(a) the person advertises, or publishes or broadcasts an advertisement for, an academic cheating service to students undertaking, with a higher education provider:

(i) an Australian course of study; or

(ii) an overseas course of study provided at Australian premises; and

(b) either:

(i) the person does so for a commercial purpose; or

(ii) the academic cheating service has a commercial purpose.

Civil penalty: 500 penalty units.

[civil penalty for academic cheating services]

These amendments are about restricting the application of civil penalties in this legislation to commercial providers of cheating services and removing them from individuals who are non-commercial providers. I just want to be clear that this amendment does not remove civil or criminal penalties for commercial cheating services. As I spoke about in debate on the bill, this exposes individuals to civil penalties. Although the minister in the other place has said that students and families and friends are protected, I think we can make it completely watertight today and make sure that there are no civil penalties, which could be up to more than $100,000 in the case of this particular legislation, to which individuals could be exposed.

Really, for instances like these, it is up to the universities to have the resources and the funding to be able to support their students and to be able to deal with this. These penalties are not even remotely commensurate with the low-grade academic misconduct that might happen. Universities must be resourced to deal with this, so I commend the amendments.

HANSARD LINK

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