Students are wonderful. They are bright and they are eager to dive into the pool of knowledge that is the higher education sector.
But in this pandemic, students’ confidence has taken a hit – and contract cheating vendors see the opportunity in this vulnerability to monetise the student desperation.
Right now there are around 1000 contract cheating vendors advertised online. This “industry” creates so much revenue that it has a comparison website. But it doesn’t just wait for students to seek its services – it actively engages with students where they are.
Through social media advertising, private messaging a student who puts a status up saying they are struggling, and even finding ways to access institutional emails and hacking university websites, students are pressured by these companies.
Now student leaders from students’ unions across the UK are fighting back.
The Academic Integrity Collective is a group that has become increasingly concerned by the volume and effect that contract cheating has on the higher education sector and, most importantly, our students. We have spoken at conferences and to parliamentarians about the issue, and now we have taken the fight to where the essay mills are – online.
Tough on the causes
Students are falling victim – but not because they want to get away without doing the work. No student enters education for an easy ride. There are many reasons why students are getting caught up in cheating:
Assumption of student knowledge in having study skills
We assume that everyone who enters university will be well versed in academic skills and rules. But we fail to recognise that we have an increasing non-traditional entry community who have never heard of academic integrity before, along with exchange students, transferring and top up communities. We also blithely assume that postgraduate students understand referencing.
We also fail to consider international students that may have been taught differently and are themselves strangers to UK standard of academic integrity. Taken together, we fail to give them the tools to succeed. That has to change.
Lack of investment in academic skills leading to lack of confidence.
Higher education providers have the to opportunity to transform the lives of many different student communities, but for lives to transform, we must build up students’ confidence in themselves. That means investment in sustainable academic skills services that can offer support to students, where they can ask the same question 50 times without worrying that they will upset the person who marks their work.
Students constantly speak to us about how many assessments they have, all due in around the same period, sometimes the same day. Our students do not solely focus on their studies – they are people with different responsibilities that sometimes need to come before their studies – such as work to feed their families.
We often meet with students who cannot carry out their assessments due to the lack of accessibility. This secondary issue has never been more noticed than during the past year of the pandemic, where students struggled in digital poverty. We need to ensure we are not creating an environment where students find themselves with no choice but to utilise unfair means.
Lack of student knowledge regarding consequences.
We fail to properly educate students on the consequences of utilising contract cheating services or illicit essay checking services, impacting both the student, institution, and sector. We don’t tell students that there is no such this as risk-free contract cheating, that essay checkers sell their papers on, nor that essay mill companies can blackmail them for years to come.
We don’t inform students that this decision can affect the entire sector, causing doubt in the validity of everyone’s degree or affecting public confidence in the graduate sector. By teaching students about these issues and the support available, we provide students with the tools to make reasonable decisions. If students do not know, then how can we expect them to follow the rules?
Lack of staff support on academic integrity
Whilst all this is in students’ best interest, we need to acknowledge that staff need the support and time to utilise good practice within the sector. Staff must have the support and time to design out opportunities to cheat and “design in” accessible, effective and non-excessive assessments where students can flourish, and essay mills become redundant.
They also need the opportunities to participate in interdisciplinary training within the subject or region to develop further their skills and confidence in handling detection and investigations.
Essay mills being where students are and being the friendly stranger
Unfortunately, because the digital world provides so many opportunities, it also increases the amount of attention and reach that these companies have to engage students, whether it is a group message on Whatsapp, an advert on Facebook or a story on Instagram. A direct message regarding a panicked student on Twitter or a video showing how easy it is to buy an essay on TikTok – these lectures companies are everywhere preying on the most vulnerable students.
We have even seen them gain entry into our institutional social media groups and our email inboxes. For a student who is on the edge, being reassured by a stranger that there is no risk to them in utilising these services and that they are there to help them could be the push they need to pay for their assignment. We need to ensure that institutions have robust reporting procedures and empower students and staff to report these sites. By doing so, the educational provider can block these sites from the network and social media groups. And providers can put out communications reinforcing the dangers of utilising services such as essay mills.
They’re still legal
In addition, these dangerous services, whilst against academic regulations, are not illegal.
We have been lobbying for legislative protection that protects students and puts the unethical essay mills out of business. We are also lobbying social media platforms and web service providers to disassociate themselves from these essay mills, stop selling ad space to them and to review their marketing policies.
And we are asking the following from universities:
- Sign up for the QAA Charter, which you can find here that helps institutions create meaningful policies that support quality assurance and students.
- Ensure assessments are accessible, appropriate and not excessive.
- Educate all students on academic integrity every single year.
- Invest in sustainable academic support skills for all.
- Create transparent processes for staff and students to report Contract Cheating communications.
- Provide staff with the remit, recognition and support to meet the challenges.
- Support our call to the government to implement legislation supporting students and targeting the essay mill companies themselves.
- Support our call to social media platforms and network providers to become ethical with their advertising and stop marketing essay mills.
We are using social media to teach students about the dangers and to engage with key stakeholders. You will find us where the essays mills are, because in the words of a classic song from the Police “every breath you take, every move you make, every bond you break, every step you take” the academic integrity collective will be watching you.