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Wednesday, 4 December 2019
Page: 6912

Mr TEHAN (WannonMinister for Education) (10:34): I move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

The Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency Amendment (Prohibiting Academic Cheating Services) Bill 2019 implements recommendations of the Higher Education Standards Panel to deter third-party academic cheating services in higher education.

The growing availability and provision of academic cheating services poses a significant threat to the integrity and reputation of the higher education sector, both in Australia and internationally. Third-party cheating activity commonly involves the provision of bespoke academic material that is subsequently submitted by a student for assessment, or a third party impersonating a student in an exam or practical test.

Promotion of cheating services to students has become widespread in recent years through on-campus advertising, email and social media. Students are being inundated with targeted promotions for cheating services highlighting their ease of access, minimal cost and low risk of detection, while downplaying the ethical dishonesty involved.

While many aspects of these services and their use are already subject to criminal and civil penalties for various offences such as fraud or misrepresentation, these can be complex and difficult to pursue. They also provide little deterrence as there is no specific law that clearly and simply says the provision of cheating assistance is wrong. This makes it too easy for unscrupulous purveyors of these destructive harmful products to trick vulnerable students—particularly those under stress or having difficulty with their studies—that it is okay to buy an essay or have someone else take an exam for them; that no-one will find out or, if they do, that there will be no consequences.

We need to stop this.

The key features of the legislation are:

The bill will make it an offence to provide, arrange or advertise academic cheating services to students studying with Australian higher education providers, whether the service is provided from within Australia or overseas.

Criminal and civil penalties of up to two years jail and fines of up to 500 penalty units—around $100,000—will apply where the cheating service or advertising is for a commercial purpose.

Civil penalties of up to 500 penalty units will apply where the cheating service is provided without remuneration.

The Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (TEQSA) will have the ability to seek court injunctions to force internet service providers and search engines to block cheating websites.

Strict liability will apply to the criminal offence of providing an academic cheating service, in order to undermine services' tactics of disingenuous disclaimers regarding the purpose and use of their products.

TEQSA will be appointed to enforce the new law, with its powers to include monitoring, intelligence gathering, investigation and prosecution of identified offenders.

TEQSA will have additional power to collect and disseminate information about cheating websites and their users to help institutions combat cheating activity on campus; but with safeguards to protect the unwarranted sharing of personal information about those who purchase cheating materials.

This bill is aimed squarely at providers of cheating services, and not at students who might use such services. Students who cheat remain subject to their institutions' own academic integrity policies, processes and sanctions. Students who cheat are not subject to the penalties this bill creates; only those who help them cheat are at risk.

The maximum penalties outlined in this bill have deliberately been set high to create a strong deterrent to the provision and promotion of cheating services. Commercial cheating service providers could face up to two years imprisonment and fines of up to $100,000. Unpaid cheating services could be subject to similar maximum fines but will not be subject to jail time or a criminal record. While these maximum penalties are severe, they are consistent with those for comparable offences such as dealing in fraudulent identity information or knowingly providing false or misleading information or providing a false or misleading document to a Commonwealth entity.

The government has listened carefully to feedback from stakeholders on an exposure draft of the bill that was released for comment in April this year. Overall, stakeholders were highly supportive of the need for legislative action to deter this cheating activity. A number of issues were raised that the government has responded to in the bill now before the House.

Criminal penalties have been limited to situations where the cheating service or advertising is done for a commercial purpose.

The maximum civil financial penalty has been halved to the same level as for criminal offences.

The scope of cheating assistance that is prohibited by the bill has been more tightly defined to where 'a substantial part' of an assessment task is undertaken by a third party, not 'any part' as in the earlier draft.

Because of this new approach, there was no longer a need to define exemptions to the prohibition—which sought to achieve the same outcomes in the earlier draft.

I recognise that some have questioned why this bill seeks to prohibit unpaid cheating assistance. Australian research has shown that a large proportion of third-party cheating occurs on an unpaid basis, by friends, family or others in the community. This type of cheating not only is a threat to the integrity of student assessments and of qualifications earned but in some fields of study—for example, in engineering or the health professions—could lead to dangerous or even life-threatening situations if students are assumed to have knowledge and skills that they do not possess. It is appropriate to deter this type of cheating.

It is not anticipated that many such cases would reach the courts, except in the most serious cases of repeated, deliberate and extensive infractions. The clear intention with this bill is to deter cheating assistance rather than to prosecute friends and family members. And universities' clear preference is to take an educative approach in the first instance where this type of cheating is detected. But it is important that we send a clear signal that cheating in higher education is not just immoral but also illegal.

International education is one of Australia's biggest export industries and this bill demonstrates to potential students, their parents, their governments and also to overseas employers that Australia takes the quality and integrity of its higher education system and graduates very seriously.

The measures in this bill will help to undermine the business model of commercial cheating service providers, many of which operate as organised criminal enterprises, drawing unsuspecting users in and in some cases exploiting these victims further with threats of blackmail and exposure to their university, their employer or their family.

The penalties in this bill will significantly change the incentives for commercial operations. The capacity to block cheating websites will make it harder for students in Australia to access these services. We will change not just the conversation about cheating but the incentives to get involved as either a provider or promoter of cheating material.

This bill will ultimately help to protect the integrity of Australian higher education.

I commend the bill.

Debate adjourned.