Irish higher education is under threat from a multi-billion global industry of cheating which could involve up to 10 per cent of students.
The Oireachtas committee on education on Tuesday heard that "contract cheating" is a growing problem and that universities need targeted funding to help protect the quality and integrity of teaching and learning.
Dr Anna Murphy, senior strategic adviser at the State's education quality watchdog, Quality and Qualifications Ireland (QQI), said recent research in Australia indicated that between 8-10 per cent of students had engaged in contract cheating and there was "no reason" to suggest the figures were any different in Ireland.
Ms Murphy said students were being targeted online by companies offering unsolicited written-to-order essays, often when they were under pressure to try to complete assignments.
She said research indicated that international students, in particular, were at risk of using these services which can be difficult to detect given that they can pass undetected using plagiarism-detection software.
Ms Murphy said a “sustained, multi-pronged, collaborative effort is needed to support academic integrity, tackle cheating and the global cheating industry so that we maintain the quality, integrity and reputation of Irish higher education”.
While Irish authorities have taken steps such as the enactment of legislation to prosecute so-called essay mills, Ms Murphy said dedicated funding would help to underpin other work.
“Now, our higher education institutions need funding to implement guidelines, to support all staff and students, gather 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 cheating was a "growing problem" and that students were being educated about the risks of using these services.
When students are tempted to use these services and end up being caught, it can result in a “devastating” mental health impact, he said.
The officials were speaking at a roundtable discussion on the future funding of the higher and further education sector.
The Government is currently considering a new funding model for the sector as universities argue that public funding per student has not recovered following recession-era cuts.
Ms Murphy of the QQI agreed that funding levels have impacted on the quality of teaching and learning.
“This committee heard representatives of the higher education institutions call for increased, sustainable, funding for higher education. This call is supported by evidence from our work on quality assurance,” she said.
She said funding impacts the quality of teaching and learning, student supports and research.
Meanwhile, Solas, which oversees the further education and training (FET) sector, called for a more “balanced” education system where apprenticeships and post-Leaving Cert course play a greater role.
Andrew Brownlee, Solas chief executive, said over 70 per cent of school leavers in Ireland choose to enter higher education directly as their future pathway.
“While our high levels of higher education participation serve as an attribute which enhances Ireland’s global reputation, there is now a case for a more balanced tertiary system with an enhanced 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 resulted in increased traffic online as students seek to explore all potential pathways.
There have also been “very encouraging signs” of increased interest in apprenticeship opportunities with over 8,600 new registrations last year. He said this was encouraging given the target of 10,000 per annum in 2022.
Mr Brownlee acknowledged that the pandemic had resulted in a significant backlog of apprentices waiting to complete their training.
He said an emergency action plan is expanding capacity to ensure waiting lists are cleared and to ensure the system can meet significant national challenges around boosting housing supply and retro-fitting homes.