Thinking | 30 November 2021

Stop that site! The rise of site-blocking orders in the higher education sector

By Wayne Kelcey, Julian Hammond and Alexandra Lane

In a recent decision, the Federal Court of Australia has, for the first time, made orders blocking access to online websites which promote cheating in the higher education sector under the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency Act 2011 (Cth) (TEQSA Act).

The decision of Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency v Telstra Corporation Ltd [2021] FCA 1202, serves as an important warning to operators of academic cheating websites  that their websites will not be tolerated in the Australian marketplace. It also sends a message to Australian internet service providers that they should continue to take steps to prevent accessibility to these websites.

Background: the rise of academic cheating sites

The websites known as Assignmenthelp4you.com and Assignmenthelp2u.com advertise themselves as providing university assignment help to students for a fee. The type of assistance offered included writing assignments, dissertations and essays for higher education students. Although the website’s operations are based in India, the websites are accessible and provide their services globally including in Australia.

Put simply, the websites offered academic cheating services to students. By doing so, these websites contravened section 114B of the TEQSA Act which prohibits advertising, publishing or broadcasting academic cheating services to students engaging in courses of studies with Australian institutions.

Prior to taking court action, TEQSA wrote to the operators of the websites to notify them that they were in breach of the provisions of the TEQSA Act and foreshadowing that, if the websites were not taken down, TEQSA would seek an injunction. After the notification was sent, the website known as Assignmenthelp4you.com was removed. However, shortly after, it was replaced by the nearly identical website known as Assignmenthelp2u.com.

In response to these websites, TEQSA made an application to the Federal Court seeking injunctions against 51 various Australian internet service providers (including the Telstra Corporation) to take reasonable steps to disable access to websites which facilitate the provision of, or advertising of, academic cheating services under section 127A of the TEQSA Act.

This was the first application of its kind made by TEQSA under this section which was first introduced in 2019. Section 127A of the TEQSA Act seeks to make it harder for students to access and ultimately use academic cheating services in Australia, and in doing so protect Australia’s reputation for quality higher education providers.

The importance of the reforms including section 127A of the TEQSA Act is set out in the Explanatory Memorandum of the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency Amendment (Prohibiting Academic Cheating Services) Bill 2019, which stated:

‘[t]he growing availability and provision of academic cheating services poses a significant threat to the integrity and reputation of the global higher education sector, including Australia’s both domestically and internationally… [t]here are also significant public confidence and safety risks, should a graduate who does not have the required skills and knowledge (and who engaged in academic cheating during their studies) go on to a professional career in a position of public trust or assurance’.

The Court’s decision

The Federal Court found that a contravention of section 114B of the TEQSA Act had occurred. In making this finding, the Court accepted that the websites advertised academic cheating services under the TEQSA Act as they contained direct references to Australian education providers, subjects and courses.

Accordingly the Court was satisfied that an injunction should be granted and ordered that the internet service providers block access to the websites within 15 business days. The Court also accepted that TESQA had made reasonable efforts to serve the application and that the two domains were likely connected stating that:

‘The timing and context in which [the second domain] became accessible, readily gives rise to the conclusion that the site is another iteration of the first’.

The Court considered that there was ‘obvious public interest in granting the injunction’ and accepted that it was appropriate to block access to the two domains. The Court’s decision was also influenced by the fact that various webpages on the second domain including the ‘Company Profile’ and ‘Services’ were still accessible at the time of the proceedings.

Key takeaways

  • Despite this decision, it is clear that academic cheating services remain widely available and accessible to Australia students. Higher education providers should remain vigilant as to the ongoing prevalence of these services when reviewing and marking student work.
  • Given the successful result obtained, we may expect to see TEQSA continuing to use section 127A against Australian internet service providers to ensure that they proactively take steps and continue to monitor academic cheating services which are accessible to Australian students.
  • Practically, this will not require that Australian internet service providers vigilantly monitor each and every website which is accessible on its platform. Rather, it will likely require that both internet service providers and higher education providers act where they are put on notice that academic cheating services exist. Accordingly, higher education providers should continue to monitor cheating services and report these to TEQSA or other appropriate bodies to allow for further action to be taken.

This article was written with the assistance of Emily Abdilla, Law Graduate. 

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