Irish higher education ‘threatened’ by global scam industry.

Irish higher education is threatened by a multi-billion dollar global scam industry that could involve up to 10 per cent of students.

The Oireachtas Committee on Education heard Tuesday that “contract fraud” is a growing problem and that universities need targeted funding to protect the quality and integrity of teaching and learning.

dr Anna Murphy, senior strategic adviser at the government’s education quality watchdog, Quality and Qualifications Ireland (QQI), said recent research in Australia showed between 8 and 10 per cent of students had committed contract fraud and there was “no reason” to suspect the numbers were different in Ireland.

Ms Murphy said students were being targeted online by companies that offered unsolicited written essays, often when they were under pressure to try and complete assignments.

She said research has shown that international students in particular are at risk from using these services, which can be difficult to detect as they can go undetected with plagiarism detection software.

Ms Murphy said that “sustained, multi-pronged, collaborative efforts are needed to support academic integrity, fight fraud and the global fraud industry so that we maintain the quality, integrity and reputation of Irish higher education”.

While Irish authorities have taken steps such as passing legislation to prosecute so-called essay mills, Ms Murphy said targeted funding would help underpin other work.

“Now our higher education institutions need funds to implement policies, support all staff and students, collect data, and provide dedicated resources, training, and research in areas like detection and artificial intelligence,” she said.

Tim Conlon, the Higher Education Authority’s head of policy and strategic planning, agreed that contract fraud was a “growing problem” and that students were being made aware of the risks of using these services.

When students are tempted to use these services and end up getting caught, it can have “devastating” mental health effects, he said.

Officials spoke at a roundtable discussion on future funding for the higher education and training sector.

The government is considering a new funding model for the sector as universities argue that public funding per student has not recovered from recession-era cuts.

QQI’s Ms Murphy agreed that the level of funding had an impact on the quality of teaching and learning.

“This committee heard calls from higher education officials for more and sustainable funding for higher education. This claim is supported by evidence from our quality assurance work,” she said.

She said funding affects the quality of teaching and learning, student support and research.

Meanwhile, Solas, which oversees the Continuing Education and Training (FET) sector, called for a “more balanced” education system, with apprenticeships and post-leaving cert courses playing a bigger role.

Andrew Brownlee, CEO of Solas, said that over 70 per cent of school leavers in Ireland choose direct entry to higher education as their future path.

“While our high participation in higher education serves as an attribute that enhances Ireland’s global standing, there is now a case for a more balanced tertiary system with a stronger role for further education and apprenticeships, in line with most other international systems,” he said.

Mr Brownlee said a new link on the CAO website has generated increased online traffic as students try to explore all potential avenues.

In addition, with more than 8,600 new registrations last year, there are “very encouraging signs” of increased interest in apprenticeships. He said this is encouraging given the target of 10,000 a year in 2022.

Mr Brownlee acknowledged the pandemic has resulted in a significant backlog of trainees awaiting completion of their training.

He said a contingency plan is expanding capacity to ensure waiting lists are cleared and to ensure the system can handle significant national challenges related to increasing housing supply and home retrofits.

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