Essay mills: UK government looks to 'honour codes' and platforms

Out-Law News | 20 Mar 2019 | 4:03 pm | 3 min. read

Universities and colleges in England have been urged to require students to sign agreements promising not to pass off others' work as their own.

The UK government said it is incumbent on higher education providers to do more to combat the threat of plagiarism arising from the growth of online 'essay mills', including to explore so-called 'honour codes'. As many as one in seven recent graduates may have paid for an essay to be written for them by someone else, according to Swansea University study.

Damian Hinds, education secretary in England, said: "When I was at university I was struck by American friends who talked about the honour code system. They wouldn’t consider even low-level plagiarism because it broke this code – an agreement as they saw it between themselves and the university, and their peers."

"I also expect universities to do everything in their power to prevent students being tempted by these companies by introducing initiatives such as honour codes and making sure their students are aware of the severe consequences they face if they are caught cheating. Students should know that they face being thrown off their course if they are found to be cheating," he said.

The UK government is expected to outline new measures to combat essay mills in a new education technology strategy set to be published this spring. It confirmed on Wednesday, though, that it has already asked payment providers to stop processing payments to essay mills and for other online platforms to follow the lead taken by Google in removing hundreds of advertisements for essay writing services and promotional content from their services.

Expert in universities law Julian Sladdin of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind, recently said that new legislation to combat essay mills is overdue. He said the call made for further voluntary action by higher education providers, payment processors and technology companies represents a further delay to the necessary legislative step.

"While the task of combating the increasing impact of essay mills and contract cheating on academic integrity in higher education requires all stakeholders including universities, internet companies and the government to take steps to tackle this issue, it seems unlikely that any real traction will be achieved without legislation making the offer of such services illegal," Sladdin said.

"Suggesting that universities impose 'honour' agreements instead is particularly concerning as such terms against contract cheating will already exist in the codes a student signs up to on enrolment and therefore seems to suggest a lack of appreciation of not only how the sector works but also the fact that often vulnerable students get drawn into using these services due to the commercial practices of the sites themselves often predicated on the fact that they are providing services which are still legal in the UK," he said.

Last autumn, 46 senior figures from across the higher education sector called for new legislation to be introduced in the UK to ban "the provision and advertising of essay mills". Essay mills are already prohibited under New Zealand law, while draft legislation has similarly been prepared in Australia and Ireland.

In response to that letter, however, the then universities minister Sam Gyimah said that while legislative options are "not off the table", there were actions institutions can take themselves to combat contract cheating, the BBC reported at the time.

Hinds said: "Sadly there have always been some people who opt for the easy way and the internet has seen a black market in essay writing services spring up. However, no matter how easy it is to access these services now, it doesn’t change the fact that this is cheating, and students must understand it is unacceptable. It is simply unethical for these companies to profit from this dishonest business which is exploiting young people and it is time to stamp them out of our world-class higher education sector."

"I am determined to beat the cheats who threaten the integrity of our system and am calling on online giants, such as PayPal, to block payments or end the advertisement of these services – it is their moral duty to do so. There has been some positive progress made by some in the tech sector but it is vital that we all unite to clamp down on this practice and the companies that are feeding on it," he said.

Guidance has been developed by the UK government, the Quality Assurance Agency, Universities UK and the National Union of Students on how best to tackle the use of essay mills.