Feb. 27, 2019

What is 'pay to pass'?

Understand the issues around paying for academic support
Students use a quiet space at the University of Calgary to catch up on their studies.
Students use a quiet space at the University of Calgary to catch up on their studies.

Students paying for additional academic support is an important and complex issue for universities — one that has been pushed to the forefront in recent years due to an increased number of companies promising students higher GPAs and passing exam grades. This is sometimes referred to as ‘pay to pass,’ and while some tutoring services play by the rules, not all do.

Many tutors have been using increasingly sophisticated marketing tactics to promote their services — and for some, that includes hiring students to gain insider access to information and resources.

There have been a number of recent reports of companies hiring students and then pressuring them to violate university policy. This includes providing class materials to third parties, booking study space on behalf of a company for commercial use, or providing the email addresses of other students to a third party so they can advertise to them.

Unethical tutoring practices on campus

Dr. Sarah Elaine Eaton, PhD, assistant professor at Werklund School of Education, is currently leading a national research project analyzing contract cheating in post-secondary institutional policies. Along with seven team members from three provinces, Eaton is looking at how colleges and universities write about contract cheating, including unethical tutoring practices, in their policies and student support documents. From her perspective, there are three main problems with ‘pay to pass’ tutoring services: misrepresenting themselves as being officially affiliated with universities, misusing university resources, and soliciting students to engage in academically unethical behaviour.

“‘Pay to pass’ companies encourage students to violate their individual and institutional commitment to integrity,” says Dr. Eaton. “These companies may argue that their operations are not illegal. My response is: that doesn’t make them ethical. We need to send the message to students that integrity matters all the time, in every decision they make.”

One graduate student recalls her experience with a company’s tutor recruitment process. “An email advertising ‘teaching opportunities’ was circulating,” she says. “The interviews were conducted at the TFDL. My surprise was when they provided us with a link with all the material related to the course — lectures, midterms, etc. I didn’t like it for many reasons. I was wondering how they got access to all that, and if the instructor knew they were distributing his lectures. But most importantly, it was not the kind of teaching I was looking for; it looked like a ‘pay to pass’ business to me. Some friends and I went to the interview. I wanted to understand what was going on, and I was confused because the interview was at the university. I was interviewed by young students. It was very unprofessional and they couldn’t answer my questions about how they got the materials.”

Lee-Ann Penaluna, co-ordinator, academic integrity, at the UCalgary Student Success Centre, says course materials are generally the intellectual property of the instructor. Selling, sharing or distributing course material owned by instructors without their permission violates intellectual property rights.

Jim Stallard, a teaching professor in the Department of Mathematics and Statistics, experienced this type of copyright infringement when a student brought him slides that had been left behind by a tutoring company. “Within the large stack of transparencies, I found two old final exams, as well as a sample final exam with © Jim Stallard 2012 appearing in the page header,” he recalls. Stallard found it ironic that the company had added “a friendly reminder about copyright” stating that the questions were copyrighted to the company and could not be copied.

The University of Calgary provide a variety of resources to help students be successful in their studies without compromising academic integrity.

The university has resources to help students be successful without compromising academic integrity.

University of Calgary

How ‘pay to pass’ puts students at risk

Penaluna notes that the agreements between some tutoring companies and the students they hire offload the responsibility and risk onto the student. “Some companies aim to circumnavigate the rules by placing the onus on the student — stipulating in their agreements that it is the student’s responsibility to understand the academic integrity requirements at their institution,” says Penaluna.

Providing class materials to a third party is a violation of university policy, as is booking space in a student’s name on behalf of a third party for commercial use (such as conducting job interviews or seminars). Many students don’t realize that these violations put them at risk of serious consequences, including possible suspension or expulsion.

Another issue arises when tutoring companies hire students to provide the email addresses of others in their classes for the purpose of sending emails promoting the company’s services — which is also a violation of university policy. This is a significant problem, since students have reported believing that such email messages were from the university because they were sent to their official UCalgary email account.

According to Dr. Ryan Hamilton, PhD, instructor and assistant head undergraduate for the Department of Mathematics and Statistics, the D2L address book for some courses had to be disabled because one company was persistently soliciting students to hand over the addresses of other students. Dr. Hamilton is also one of the instructors whose materials are being sold. “Another company continues to sell my MATH 249 notes, which are freely available on D2L to all registered students,” he says.

Educating students on the resources available

Many of the class materials offered for a price by ‘pay to pass’ companies are available to students for free through their D2L account. Student and Enrolment Services recently launched a campaign to educate students about issues related to tutoring services — and to let them know about the quality academic supports already freely available on campus. 

One of these supports is the Peer Assisted Study Sessions (PASS) program. This program focuses on courses that students or instructors have identified as being extra challenging. The sessions are offered at no cost and with the support of the faculty members who are teaching the course.

Steve Mason, manager of learning support programs at the Student Success Centre, has seen the program help many students since it began in 2012. “For the 2016-2017 year, those who attended five or more sessions were a grade increment higher than their peers,” he says. “That trend holds fairly consistently, so we do encourage students to attend regularly.”

Dr. Jeffrey Church, PhD, a professor and the undergraduate director with the Department of Economics, has taught one of the courses supported by the PASS program. “PASS works very well,” he says. “In the group session, students learn to think it through on their own with the help of their classmates and the PASS leader. In the process, they learn more than how to solve the problem under consideration, but also how to use the principles and theoretical concepts to solve other problems, both abstract and concrete.”

In addition to the PASS program, there are a number of other free services available to students as they consider what academic supports are best for them. The Student Success Centre offers writing and math support, as well as specialized support for international and graduate students. Students can also access academic development specialists who will help them improve academically, develop study skills, and make a long-term academic plan. 

“Academic integrity is a cornerstone of the University of Calgary, and we provide a variety of resources to help students be successful in their studies without compromising it,” says Dr. Susan Barker, vice-provost (student experience). “Students can make their own choices about paying external companies for support, but they need to be careful not to put themselves at risk of violating university policies.

“At the end of the day, we want to ensure students are successful in their studies and leave with very positive experiences.”

More information on ‘pay-to-pass’ for students: