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1 June 2023

A combined criminological approach to understanding assignment outsourcing

Why they do and why they don’t: a combined criminological approach to understanding assignment outsourcing in higher education, written by Dr Rebecca Awdry and Dr Andrew Groves, ‘reports on the qualitative findings of an international survey of students’ perceptions and experiences of outsourcing, to test the utility of a multi-theoretical criminological explanation for this behaviour.’

We spoke to Dr Awdry, an Honorary Fellow with the Centre for Research in Assessment and Digital Learning (CRADLE) about the paper, how they applied different theories to the practice of outsourcing, and what institutions can do help students avoid participation in academy integrity breaches.

Can you tell us about yourself and your role at Deakin?

I finished my Deakin PhD through CRADLE in 2022. After leaving Deakin through Deakin Reimagined, I had the time to be more involved in my research, to have a lot more open conversations with multiple universities about academic integrity and to touch base more broadly with the sector. Before that, working an intensive full-time job and doing a PhD left me with very little outside time to be able to fit in that kind of connection. Having additional space ended up being fantastic because it meant I could have those everyday conversations that people were having throughout the period I was studying.

Those conversations resulted in me taking a different direction in terms of the papers I wanted to write. Also, I kept a strong connection with Deakin because I had several papers that Deakin had supported me on through my supervision, and ideas I was developing from conversations with my supervisors. It was suggested that I become an Honorary Fellowship and remain engaged with CRADLE because I was a prior PhD candidate that was still actively involved in writing, researching and presenting. It’s been fantastic to stay connected with Deakin and give me an additional three years of working with CRADLE, which means I can still take part in such valuable conversation around academic integrity and assessment on a regular basis with the researchers there. I have been working as a Senior Education Consultant with many other institutions, in and outside of Australia, so I have got such a varied view of how institutions experience the problem, everyone has the same problem, they are just working on different ways to manage it.

Can you tell me about Dr Andrew Groves, who also worked on the paper?

Andrew was one of my PhD supervisors – he was the criminologist on the panel. My PhD was in education, but from the very beginning I wanted to bring in criminological theory to my PhD, and it wasn’t until the final two years when it really became apparent that I needed a criminologist on my panel.  Andrew joined at that point.

This paper that I’ve done with Andrew is the final paper for my PhD by publication but is also a kind of a condensed version of all the conversations that Andrew and I have had over applying different criminological theories to the problem of academic misconduct. Andrew is at Flinders University now, but we certainly keep in contact and keep exploring ideas. 

Can you tell us more about the topic of your paper and its importance?

This paper was a combined criminological approach. I find that a lot of studies might apply one or two theories to the problem of cheating in higher education, be that psychology, economics, sociology, criminology. From my background as a criminologist, this approach was lacking a cyclical picture. It could explain the reasons why they did or didn’t outsource, but it didn’t cover the entirety of their experience. We wanted to capture a combined approach to cover the complex and nuanced ways that students outsource. Students don’t just outsource in a straightforward way. It’s very complicated. It can be very contextual, it can be situational, it can be personal.

Using these combined theories, we were able to see that a student, who in all other circumstances would never have considered outsourcing, were influenced by various factors that lead them to outsourcing at that time. By designing that approach, we were able to test the data we already had for a large international study I ran at the start of my PhD research. 

We took an inductive and deductive approach because of the complexity of the comments and the process of coding them, but also because we knew we wanted to apply theories, but didn’t know exactly which theories. We wanted the comments to guide our use of theory, and then test that. The first thing we did was both repeatedly reread the comments supplied by students through my previous study. We had close to 3000 individual comments, all of which were optional, so these were students who really wanted to tell us something.

We broke those down and separated them out, and through rereading them we were able to ascertain whether or not the ideas we already had about the theory could be applied or not. This process led us to put aside some ideas and bring in new ones. It was a very long and rigorous process to code all the comments.

How can educators and others in the higher education community apply this paper to their practice?

One of the biggest points I want to make is that people can’t assume that there’s a formula for why students outsource. It’s really important for institutions to not just make assumptions of the reasons why, or the contexts within which students may or may not outsource, because there are so many interplaying factors.

This paper was focused on assignment outsourcing or contract cheating as some call it. For me, contract cheating is a smaller version of outsourcing, because students often outsource elements or parts of their assessment, and they might get information from other students in exchange for other things, like favours or food, rather than any kind of a contract with an official contract cheating provider.

You need to understand their context and that sometimes there is such a pressure on students they feel forced to behave in a way they would normally condemn. Students might have, for example, seen other people succeed using these outsourcing behaviours and decide that if those people haven’t been detected that there’s little risk. A situation like that might lead to the student choosing to outsource at that time.

There may be other students who are completed bombarded all the time through social media adverts telling students this is just study help, or that if their university isn’t supporting them, this company can. They are being influenced through what we would call social learning theory in a way that makes it seem acceptable to the student, that this is a normative behaviour, which can be applied at university if they’re struggling or need help with their assignments.

I suppose a final take home that I push in all my papers is that institutions also need to be detecting outsourcing. I push this because in my own research we found a very low detection rate. Without detection, or without any consequences for detection, there is a reinforcement effect where a student is reinforced positively that they are potentially going to get a good grade for outsourcing. They should be negatively reinforced – that cheating will be caught and there will be repercussions, whether that’s rehabilitative, educative or punitive – that’s up to the institution’s policy.

Without a higher rate of detection, we’re really reducing a major factor which can influence and teach through learnt behaviours that this not an acceptable practice. Unfortunately, it’s a very complicated area to detect. It’s something which people need to be trained in and there needs to be resourcing put towards it, but it is a very important message that needs to be sent to students.

If staff are telling students up front that we’re aware that students outsource and we have methods to detect this, please just come to me if you need help – that’s a way of normalising integrity over misconduct.



Awdry, R. and Groves, A. (2023). Why they do and why they don’t: a combined criminological approach to understanding assignment outsourcing in higher education. International journal for educational integrity, 19(1). doi:

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