Chegg, Fraud and Australia’s Universities

The note on Radio National’s background briefing on the morning of July 31 was grim. A student, who did not reveal his real name but is known as Ramesh, speaks about services helping him with his studies.

Given that Ramesh works grueling night shifts in the fast-food industry, he’s unable to teach morning classes at the said unnamed university.

The student, along with other participants in the program, talks about accessing a variety of websites that offer “support services” that help the fraudulent industrial complex. He compares whether he is worried about being caught with the consequences of excessive speed: It’s all right if you don’t get caught.

The pressure is enormous, especially for international students or scholarship holders who need to achieve certain grades in order to retain their place or scholarship.

The stress of the COVID-19 pandemic on learning has prompted students to look for other helpers to facilitate learning and maintain their grades.

Just as the pandemic forced students out of physical classes and into their homes and bedrooms, online platforms — in this case sites like Santa Clara-based Chegg — were there to capitalize.

According to Chegg’s website, course help is promised around the clock – 24/7 no less. “From day one to graduation, you’ll receive homework help, exam preparation, and writing support—tailored to your courses.”

A number of sub-areas the company mentions try to avoid the idea that plagiarism or fraud is taking place. In fact, there’s a section dedicated to “Writing and Citation” that promises to “enhance your writing with plagiarism checks, expert proofreading, and instant citations.”

This very fact suggests that the company is less interested in broader plagiarism policies towards the student and more interested in enabling the student to write a paper that bypasses the plagiarism monitors.

That’s a far cry from the company that started in 2000 and offers a scholarship locator, an internship locator, and general college entry advice. Money started flowing for the company when it started renting out textbooks.

Then came COVID-19 and the advent of the global virtual classroom. Chegg subscriptions skyrocketed. In the third quarter of 2020, they rose to 3.7 million, or 69% from 2019 numbers.

Chegg’s total net income last year was $776.3 million based on a subscriber base of 4.6 million. It is now valued at around $12 billion.

Statements as to whether use of Chegg’s Services constitutes Internet Fraud.

An article from the college guide is pretty clear: “Chegg is cheating if you use Chegg Study in college to do homework, answer quizzes, or answer exam questions.”

(Is it really useful for anything else?)

Legislation was passed in August 2020 making it a criminal offense for any person to offer or advertise academic fraud services related to the provision of higher education in Australia, whether that person is in the country or elsewhere.

The act is so serious that it justifies a prison sentence of up to two years. A distinction is also made from the point of view of payment: fraud services provided free of charge are treated differently than paid services.

Australia’s university regulator, the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency, has gone so far as to block 40 websites that get 450,000 monthly visits.

Education Secretary Jason Clare said on August 5: “Illegal fraud services threaten academic integrity and expose students to criminals who often attempt to extort students into paying large sums of money.” This gesture is certainly more symbolic than effective as such sites are accessible in other ways.

Chegg CEO Dan Rosensweig’s tendency is to shift the focus back to who he sees as the prime culprit: the university itself. Traditional colleges, he explained in 2019, need to adapt to the on-demand economy and the binge-worthy one accept the character of modern education. To that end, his company offers a service similar to Uber.

Rosensweig denies that his company enables fraud. Chegg’s code of honor states: “Academic integrity is a fundamental part of the learning process and we work to preserve it.” Its services are designed to “support, not replace, learning”.

To cover his tracks, Chegg warns of “severe consequences” that can result from misusing its services, “including but not limited to having our platforms suspended or your institution launching an investigation.”

But monitoring such borders is almost impossible. Detection has become difficult given the universities’ exploitative rating system.

Australia’s disproportionately precarious academic staff leaves little room or incentive to devote time to identifying such work. The average time spent grading students is one hour, and some universities have caught up by giving their tutors even less time to grade papers.

That ABC reported in August 2020 that tutors at 10 higher education institutions were effectively encouraged to “skim” reviews. RMIT University was brought before the Fair Work Commission by the National Tertiary Education Union for their abysmal rates, which limited the time taken to grade an essay and provide comments to students to a miserable 10 minutes per essay.

In such rich exploitative soils Chegg-ing is bound to thrive.

Universities can do a number of things in an academic arms race that they would otherwise inevitably lose. You can reconsider evaluation strategies. You can improve the conditions for tutors and staff responsible for grading. They can ease the absurd burdens imposed on international students whose treatment has been abominable during and before the pandemic.

Where there is hunger and desire there will be a market.

Universities have always faced the problem of fraud. But the market of mass, corporatized education has also produced the means of its own subversion.

Students who lack financial support and who are constantly faced with programs that put them at a disadvantage will always find a way. Integrity is meaningless in such a case, much like ethics would be to a starving creature.

Simply targeting the likes of Chegg won’t solve the problem. A broader institutional approach is needed, and Australian universities have repeatedly shown that they are not up to such challenges.

[Binoy Kampmark currently lectures at RMIT University.]

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