Out-Law Analysis | 26 Oct 2021 | 9:05 am | 3 min. read
The Department for Education (DfE) announced in early October that “essay mills” are to be made illegal under a new Skills and Post-16 Education Bill. This follows calls from Chris Skidmore, former universities minister, in February to impose a ban.
The measures will make it a criminal offence to provide, arrange or advertise these cheating services for financial gain to students taking post-16 qualifications at institutions in England, including universities. The DfE said this will help protect students by ensuring that they are not placed at risk by “deceptive marketing techniques of contract cheating services”.
The announcement provides a clear message from the government that cheating will not be tolerated in UK higher education
The move to ban essay mills is long overdue. Evidence for legislative intervention has been building over a number of years to the point where the problem of web-based essay mill services is now a global issue.
The availability of these businesses and their ability to target students in further and higher education is a major assault on academic integrity and an attack on the core values of academia. Any further delay in introducing a ban would continue to be harmful to the sector as a whole and place vulnerable students at further risk of being drawn into using contract cheating services.
In September 2018, 46 vice-chancellors from some of the UK's leading universities, together with other sector leaders, felt compelled to write an open letter to Damian Hinds, the then education secretary in England, requesting that the government introduce legislation to outlaw the "provision and advertising of essay mills" before the end of that parliament. This followed a survey by Swansea University which indicated that as many as one in seven graduates may have paid someone else to write an essay or assignment for them, and that internationally up to 31 million graduates could have engaged in the practice of contract cheating – paying another party to prepare work to be submitted for assessment – during their time at university.
Another study by the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education QAA) found 17,000 cases of cheating by students, although no breakdown of contract cheating cases is available from the QAA research. Its most recent surveys suggest cheating has increased through the pandemic and that there are over 900 essay mills operating in the UK. This is up from 635 in 2018.
While various UK government ministers have confirmed over the past few years that legislation to address the problem was an option, it had appeared until now that the latest government policy was to put the onus on the universities sector to take action themselves to address the issue, through getting students to commit to ‘honour codes’ upon enrolment, for instance. The only other actions proposed beyond that was a request that payment providers stop processing payments to essay mills, for other online platforms to remove advertisements for essay writing services and promotional content about those services, and for the government to discuss with technology providers the better use of anti-cheating software.
The higher education sector and online platforms do not have a role to play, and a joined-up response is required, but it is clear based on the mounting evidence that legislative intervention – like what has already happened in New Zealand and Australia – is a core part of what is needed to combat the problem of essay mills.
The higher education sector has made significant progress in combatting academic misconduct, in all its forms, over the last few years. This has included the use of better technology, more robust policies and assessment design, and better educating students as to the significant risks to them of cheating in assessed work.
In addition, guidance from the QAA in 2017, updated in 2020, on how to address contract cheating has resulted in institutions blocking access to sites which are known to offer essay writing services through their IT systems, updating their induction processes, student support and assessments as well as the wording of student undertakings regarding the integrity of work submitted for assessment to combat this issue. Universities have also been making it implicit to staff that offering their services to such companies could have serious disciplinary implications.
However, the statistics from Swansea University and QAA have shown that the problem is not only worldwide but increasing despite the steps already taken by universities and online platforms and payment providers.
Anecdotally, we have heard that the lack of legal restrictions on the trading of essay services is creating a safeguarding issue in relation to the most vulnerable students. There are concerning examples of vulnerable students all too often being enticed to use the services of essay mills by assurances given by those providers that their activities are legitimate study aids only for them to be subsequently blackmailed by those providers to hand over ever increasing sums of money on threat of being exposed to their university.
Therefore, while long overdue, it is extremely welcome that the UK government is now putting forward legislation to curb the activities of essay mills. In addition to offering the protections afforded by a statutory ban, the announcement provides a clear message from the government that cheating will not be tolerated in UK higher education. This planned intervention is critical if the apparent continuing increase in contract cheating amongst university students is to be reversed.
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