Category Archives: Academic Life

If it’s not your words its not your work – on how to (NOT) communicate to students about academic outsourcing*

* I much prefer to avoid the very loaded term “contract cheating”, so when compelled to use judgemental language I will use CC, if that is ok.

Firstly, you should probably watch this video (source):

I first saw this tweeted and retweeted by well known academic integrity/plagiarism experts; it’s always the usual suspects, as we’re a small group, and like to share 🙂

Before I go on, it’s important to state that we are all striving to find ways to communicate about, avoid if possible, and decide the fair penalty for various forms of academic misconduct. It’s safe to say we are mostly looking for prevention over penalty, so things like the video above are well intended. However…

So, here it is. My “list” of things wrong with this video. But first, in the manner of those YouTube “influencers” who annoyingly tease some cool content, then spend 8 minutes of the 15 minute video saying other, irrelevant stuff like “Don’t forget to LIKE, Subscribe and click the Bell…” I want to couch my criticisms with the following statement.

Firstly, it is highly likely that this video was made by students themselves, or they were heavily involved in the creative task that led to its creation. This is, in principle, a good thing. “Not about us without us” is a well known phrase in Disability circles, meaning that we shouldn’t be preaching to, talking at or, far worse, speaking for others. They should be part of the debate. Part of the dialogue. So, if it is true that this comes uniquely from the student body at UNSW, that is no bad thing. Secondly, the criticisms I am going to raise may trigger people, and it is meant to begin a discussion about the mixed and loaded messages that can have unforeseen side-effects, and are not direct criticisms of those that were involved.

Ok, disclaimer over. Let us break down the video into its constituent parts, and assume that I haven’t had a sense of humour failure; you may not agree, or feel I am raising straw man arguments here, but my concern is tacit assumptions made, or inferred in the content of the video. Here goes, with a commented chronology of the piece. We open with two students, one male and one female, both Australian, judging by the accent; so possibly native students, rather than International. At least we have avoided one stereotype: that international students “cheat” more often than home students.

The assignment is set for a week’s time

The first concern: a very short deadline for summative work. In my institution, assignments for the year (for the Year!) are set in the Summer, internally and externallyt moderated, and made available to the students as soon as they start in September. While this does prevent some flexibility – I cannot set an assignment in light of topical events, unless the pre-written brief is suitably vague, or I go through a difficult late approval process – an assignment’s content and deadline should never be a surprise. This lets students gauge for themselves when the pinch points in their work time are going to be. Furthermore, we stagger assessment schedules to prevent clashes that could put students under additional pressure. Of course, that does not prevent a student from starting their coursework a week before the deadline, but that would then be their choice. Here, two students have summative assessment due in a week, presumably without having had prior knowledge of what it entailed. This is not good practice.

The young man gets to work

So, with strident Rocky style workout music behind him, the never named young man settles down to work hard on his assignment.

The young woman does not

With a lighthearted, whimsical soundtrack, the young woman, Vivian, is browsing social media in the Sun, without a care in the World. Clearly not taking this seriously. Lazy, perhaps? I might be being sensitive here, but the gender reversal is either deliberate, or accidental. Either way, there is a “one sex good, one sex bad” message.

Nice subliminal message about how great UNSW lecturers are… Note the LIKE

Nice subliminal advertising, UNSW! Even Vivian LIKEd the lecturer at the end of October.

Assignment Do-ers – I wonder if that URL is already taken?

Ah but scrolling down she sees… an Essay Mill ad! Now it is not uncommon for such ads to pop up. I regularly see them next to online newspaper articles about plagiarism, for example. I’d agree that trying to prevent students from seeing these, by holding the sites responsible or, in the Australian case, trying to make such adverts illegal, is a good thing to try. However, its of interest to note that the UNSW site this video is hosted on is often found by its students scanning a QR code on fake “essay help” flyers dotted around the campus; a sort of clever, beneficent honey trap. Suffice it to say, it is going to be impossible to stop students from seeing such advertising. Essay mills paper drop, and employ student advocates, so even an ISP or search engine ban is not going to prevent access to these services.

Do I have enough money?

Clearly, Vivian is quite impulsive, and has decided on the “easy life” of commissioning an essay from this mill.

Lie back and relax

Lazy times ahead. I think they say “No worries!” don’t they?

Hitting the books

Working hard, our intrepid, still unnamed male student hits what we old timers used to call “A… BOOK…”. Clearly, an autonomous learner.

Sepia tones! This can’t be good!!!

The World goes grey, and the music is tense and stabby! ~Bad things are going to happen to Vivian.

Oh noes! Blackmail!!!

There is something wrong here. Vivian has not yet submitted any work and, therefore, has not committed an offence. In fact, although most of us don’t really believe it, essay mill sites use the “This is just a study guide” defence, and post disclaimers that their work should not be submitted as is. It has worked as a potential legal defence, even if most of us believe it to be disingenuous. So, not yet an offence! Although this is meant to represent the very real threat of blackmail, there would be no reason for Vivian to pay up. BUT note the date, the 18th November. It could be we are seeing things out of order; this is a film, after all, and this sort of thing has been known to happen in movies. However, there are some major plot holes to deal with next though, if this IS the future.

Burning the candle

Unnamed man is still working hard on his expensive MacBook. He doesn’t have problems accessing hardware and software. He doesn’t appear to have financial concerns, food insecurity, homelessness, learning in a second language, or any of the many outside pressures that students are placed in daily. Mind you, neither does Vivian. And that’s rather telling.

Uh oh! Something seems off

Oh dear. BUT note the date, the 12th November, a week earlier… So, we have a paradox to fix. Either Vivian handed in her bought essay on or before the 12th November, and just happens to wear the same clothes and sit on the same piece of lawn regularly, or the lecturer saw a draft copy of the assignment, and as it hasn’t been submitted as summative assessment yet – this not yet being an offence – and has some concerns about the essay. At this stage, if students are given the chance to submit drafts for formative feedback, issues about poor academic skills can be identified. Of course, we have all heard tell of essay mills providing drafts, and revising an essay based on tutor feedback, but no system is perfect. BUT (as we are to see) Unnamed man hasn’t even submitted yet.

Time to submit, yey!

Our student with no name seems relieved and happy, but then bumps into Vivian, who has just received her “something odd” message from the lecturer (huh?). Or is it the blackmail message, sent a week later? Either way, how did HE get a week’s extension, no matter what the date? Or why would she put in a bought essay a week early? She would have had time to write one herself. Is she really that lazy? Or stupid? Or both?

Woman on the EDGE!!!

Vivian barges past Unnamed man, clearly in distress. Why does he not ask her how she is? They seemed friendly at the start.

Man steals her drink?

He seems unconcerned, even helping himself to her hastily discarded drink!

I hear “someone” got done for cheating. Who would do that? Pretty crazy…

“I heard someone got done for cheating.” Who WOULD do that? BUT more importantly, how would he know? Academic misconduct is and should be a confidential matter. If Unnamed man ‘knows’ about it – and he clearly knows WHO it is too, as we shall see – then a breach of privacy and trust has occurred. This is a major problem, as generally we as academics want students to learn from these poor choices, if choices there were. There has to be the redemptive path in the manner with which academic misconduct is dealt with. A way to learn from mistakes.

… Pretty crazy, considering all the free services that UNSW offers to its students

“Pretty crazy, given all the free services that UNSW offers to its studentd.” Services that our young man clearly didn’t use. Although it is fun to see the fourth wall broken 🙂 it IS important to remember, though, that there are support services there for struggling students. The problem is that, at no point, is Vivian represented as a struggling student. While there will always be a minority of offenders, who could be labelled as “lazy”, the majority were in positions where they felt they had no other choice. A desperate choice isn’t a choice at all!

But remember…

“If it’s not your words, it’s not your work!” It’s a catchy line, and quite true. But this doesn’t help the majority of students who are making poor choices in how to handle their stressful situations. Maybe they were let into the university without the right level of English proficiency? Who’s fault would it be then?


Vivian is bellowed at, to go see her tutor. Clearly, this is time for her comeuppance. And the young man chuckles conspiratorially… He knows who cheated. He’s smug, listening to the harsh tones of the (offscreen) lecturer. As well as dealing with the consequences of the offence, she will now have to deal with the judgement of her cohort; I find it hard to believe that he will keep that juicy gossip to himself.

And that’s the end of the video. Notionally, a well intended offering, attempting to warn students of the consequences of CC (see earlier). However, it makes several unwise, or unfair assumptions in the manner in which it represents the offence, and the offender. Vivian is not representative of those who, sadly, fall prey to Essay Mills. They aren’t monied, lazy students, but are often having to deal with many factors in their lives. The majority are in the unenviable position of feeling they have limited choices, and too proud or stubborn or lost to reach out for the (often cut and reduced) services that are available.


Well intentioned, but misrepresentative; disrespectful of the people in difficult circumstances; unlikely to address those most at risk, because it trivialises their experience.

Please comment.

Why I (along with others) am resigning as an External Examiner – an Open (and Rambling) Letter

To whom it may concern,

I am resigning from my external examining posts, and urge you to do the same. I’m not alone, and in illustrious company (see below), but we each have our own reasons (and regrets, I’m sure) for choosing to step down from one of the most pleasurable/painful duties an academic faces in their ‘famine and feast’ vocation. After all, who in their right mind would take on extra work during the busiest time of the year?

Why we are resigning - Guardian Letters
Why we are resigning – Guardian Letters

With ever more complex assessments, developed to innovate, teach work-place skills, and design out plagiarism, amidst shrinking deadlines caused by ever quicker turnarounds needed by academic boards, which seem (and mostly are) earlier and earlier – not to mention the “pre” and “pre pre” boards intended to polish up performance (and iron out problems?) prior to the arrival of the externals – which all serve to increase the burden of assessment, why would we add to that work load? And yet many of us have. And willingly so. 

You see we feel a duty and a benefit from our visits to the hampered campuses of fatigued colleagues. If nothing else, it helps us to not feel alone; to know that others share this strange and unique job of creating, measuring and peddling knowledge. At the best of times, I’ve seen true genius, dedication and amazing creativity on foreign soil. Some of my most successful strategies and teaching have been inspired by the work I’ve seen, and not only that of fellow lecturers; I have had to regularly readjust what I considered fair and reasonable to expect from students too, and always upwards. So, both I and my own institution have benefitted greatly by this cross-pollination.

In return, I feel I’ve been able to share my own experience, helping to make awards and the student experience that much better. And yet, one of the hardest lessons I learned from many years as an external examiner is that “It isn’t your job to tell colleagues how to do their job, just to make sure they did it!” It’s an incredibly diplomatic role, to just make sure that academics and administrators have followed their own rules and regulations. It can be hard sometimes, especially when your personal opinion might be that corners are being cut, procedures ignored or are actually counter-productive, given learning is our goal. The associated administrative load associated with measuring the measurement of success can be quite oppressive. Necessary, but oppressive. Just one of the increasing burdens. However, it is hard not to feel that some of these tasks take away from the true purpose of lecturing. 

In the worst (and thankfully rarest) cases, I’ve seen academic misconduct uncovered in or before boards. The sheer amount of sample course works, exams and projects that externals are expected to review in a day (or often a morning) is quite staggering. I’m reminded of Sir Humphrey’s Red Box strategy of burying unfortunate material in piles of papers.

Sir Humphrey hides bad news in Red Box No.5
Sir Humphrey hides bad news in Red Box No.5

Not that I believe lecturers are condoning plagiarism, etc, but it’s easy to miss academic misconduct when the work load is heavy, and deadlines are tight. When such activities are uncovered, it is embarrassing for everyone, because it calls into doubt the whole QA process. However, even such ‘bloody noses’ can be a great learning opportunity, because they help to raise academic debate on assessment in the 21st century.

So, being an external examiner has its ups and downs, but the institutional benefit far outweighs the small fees that externals receive – typically £200-£750 per annum depending on institution – for visiting campuses several times a year, as well as reviewing module packs, online materials, and occasional (re)validation documents. It should be noted that while academic staff are often being ‘paid twice’ for such activities, the fee never covers the real term costs for externals’ time but, as mentioned before, the tangible benefits to both host and lending universities – from cross-pollination of best practice and innovation in learning, teaching and assessment, as well as networking – more than make up for the illusion of externals unfairly benefitting from ‘double pay’.

I have definitely been amply rewarded for my time as external examiner, in a number of excellent schools across the country, least of all financially. I (and I’d like to think those I’ve worked with) have become a much better educator as a result. So, when I saw the instruction from UCU that members should resign from existing external examining posts, working out our notice (so as to not completely drop the ball), and not taking up new invitations, I was initially quite dismayed. Great friendships have been forged with esteemed colleagues in all of the universities I have worked with, in an external capacity, and I was concerned about the potential impact on my professional career. Leaving lecturers in the lurch is never going to be a comfortable thing to consider, and the chance that a sudden blot on a twenty year career as external could mean I might never again be approved for an examining post, played heavy on my heart.

I am aware that, for some, this was an unacceptable and surprising request from UCU, and in at least one case this has meant one fewer member as a result. However, when I sat down to think about it, my initial response seemed out of place. This is exactly the kind of action that can signal our resolve in this current strike. It is commensurate, communicates how fervently we support the union, and shows that we are prepared to personally sacrifice more than just wages, to make it clear that we mean business. We cannot afford the damp squib that was the pensions strike a few years ago, which just fizzled out. This is far more serious, because it is about the step-by-step destruction of the profession. Zero hour contracts, performance related pay by stealth (it’s coming, mark my words, and the first thin end of the wedge is already here, as we prepare for the TEF), and the systematic replacement of expensive senior staff with cheaper starting out lecturers, often on casual contracts, through ‘restructuring’, which notionally removes mid-management bloat, but actually just pushes unnecessary admin onto lower pay grades. 

In the long term, it’s hard to know just how much I have sacrificed by resigning: the loss of contact with colleagues and friends; the immeasurable educational effects of cross-fertilisation; and the professional and financial benefits. However, that is nothing to what the next generation of lecturers, those who will replace me in a decade or so, will have to face if we don’t make a stand now. It was never about a simple, selfish pay rise. Like with the Junior Doctors, it is about preventing the casual undermining of a whole profession. 

Dr. Mike Reddy