Ghost Grading: Part 2 – Examining Possible Legal Loopholes in Canada

September 7, 2021

In Part 1 of this series I talked about how contract cheating companies are now targeting professors and teaching assistants (TAs) to offer grading services. Since then, I have done a bit of digging into whether it is legal, or even permissible to outsource one’s grading responsibilities.

I figure if you are hired to for an academic role that includes teaching that would also including taking responsibility for grading and other duties related to assessment. Of course there are provisions to work with a TA in some courses, but TAs are also employees of the university and their work is approved by the institution. In cases like this, working with a TA is a perfectly legitimate activity and there is no deception. Ghost grading is different because it can happen without the knowledge or permission of the employer.

Ghost graders are unauthorized individuals, hired under the table, to perform academic duties that would otherwise be conducted by academic staff or teaching assistants.

Employing ghost graders also deceives students because they have no idea who is assessing their work or who has access to it. Just as educators expect students to complete their assignments themselves, without engaging a third party, so too, should students be able to expect their professors and teaching assistants to assess their work. If a professor or TA hires a ghost grader, the student has no idea what that individual or company might do with their work without their knowledge, such as re-sell it or share it to the contract cheating company or any other additional third party. You can start to see how the practice of using unauthorized ghost graders gets complicated fast. By hiring a ghost grader, educators are breaking trust with their students and their employers.

University faculty members at publicly-funded universities in Canada are often unionized. To my surprise, I found several examples of collective agreements and employment contracts that do not strictly prohibit the outsourcing or sub-contracting of one’s duties. I started with my own university. I searched for the terms “outsource”, “outsourcing”, “subcontract”, and “sub-contract” in our collective agreement for academic staff. I found no matches for these search terms. I reviewed the collective agreement and it was not immediately evident to me that there was any clause that specifically prohibits faculty members from outsourcing their job duties to a third party. (Please note: I am not a lawyer or an expert in contract law.)

I found this puzzling. I am the first to admit that I am not a lawyer, and nor am I an expert on labour laws, collective agreements or contracts. So, I reached out to the University of Calgary Faculty Association (TUCFA) on August 12, 2021 via e-mail to ask for clarification regarding outsourcing in University of Calgary’s collective agreement, but yet to receive a response. To be fair, I am quite sure they remain very busy with matters related to COVID-19 and I will update this blog post if I receive a reply from them.

Out of curiosity, I repeated the search and scan with the collective agreements for academic staff at the University of Alberta (Alberta, Canada), the University of British Columbia (British Columbia, Canada), and Queen’s University (Ontario, Canada) with similar results. As a non-expert, I could find no immediate evidence in any of them that it is prohibited to outsource one’s grading responsibilities, or any other employment duties, for that matter.

I should point out that I have not conducted an in-depth investigation into this. I am situated in Canada and I cannot speak to what happens in any other country. I did not conduct a scan of the collective agreements that cover teaching assistants, but I would not be surprised if the situation was the same.

Following my first blog post on this topic, I received a number of e-mails from individuals telling me stories of professors at their university (in Canada and elsewhere) who regularly outsource their grading duties, paying for services out of their own pocket or under a research grant, classifying them as “professional services”. This is all anecdotal and I cannot substantiate any of it.

What I can say is that it seems there may be a legal loophole, at least in Canada, that would allow contract cheating companies to wiggle into this new line of business of offering grading services to professors and teaching assistants. As with student contract cheating, the companies would not be at fault, particularly since there are no laws in Canada prohibiting these kinds of companies from operating. In other jurisdictions, were laws against contract cheating have been enacted, the focus has been on academic cheating, so there may be loopholes elsewhere that legally allow companies to reach out to faculty and teaching assistants to provide sub-contracting services.

Of course, no collective agreement or employment contract can be exhaustive of all the ways that an employee can engage in misconduct. It could be that there is no clause in these agreements that strictly prohibits outsourcing of work because it falls under a general category of employee misconduct that might be addressed on a case-by-case basis, with investigators considering numerous pieces of evidence and details. It seems bizarre to me that this particular loophole exists, because it has left post-secondary institutions vulnerable to exploitation from commercial third-party providers who profit from various forms of misconduct. And if faculty and teaching assistants do not know that it is unacceptable to outsource their work, then it seems reasonable to expect that some of them might fall prey to companies who promise to ease their stress and relieve them of aspects of their work that they find unrewarding or too time-consuming.

Contract cheating companies are infiltrating higher education faster than ever before; and they may have just found a whole new market for illicit academic outsourcing services with professors and teaching assistants being their target customer base.

Read more:

Ghost Grading: Part 1 – A New Twist on Contract Cheating

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Sarah Elaine Eaton, PhD, is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, and the Educational Leader in Residence, Academic Integrity, University of Calgary, Canada.

Opinions are my own and do not represent those of the University of Calgary or anyone else.

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