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A joined-up approach is needed to tackle cheating

As the cheating and essays mills debate goes back to the House of Lords, Registrarism calls for a more joined up approach to tackling the problem.
This article is more than 7 years old

Paul Greatrix is Registrar at The University of Nottingham, author and creator of Registrarism and a Contributing Editor of Wonkhe.

I wrote here recently about the need to tackle the essay mills, and it is encouraging that there has now been an announcement from the Minister on this issue.

The BBC reported the announcement, noting that Jo Johnson has said he wanted “tough action” against plagiarism and the “commercial industry it has spawned.”

Essay-writing websites often carry disclaimers suggesting the essays being sold should be used only as examples and not passed off as students’ own work.
The universities minister wants a more co-ordinated response to the problem.

Mr Johnson is asking the standards watchdog to take action against essay mills advertising their services to students.

He also wants stronger guidance for students, including “tough new penalties for those who make use of essay mills websites”.

“This form of cheating is unacceptable, and every university should have strong policies and sanctions in place to detect and deal with it,” said Mr Johnson.

“Essay mill websites threaten to undermine the high quality reputation of a UK degree, so it is vital that the sector works together to address this in a consistent and robust way.”

Dame Julia Goodfellow, president of Universities UK, said: “Universities have severe penalties for students found to be submitting work that is not their own.

“Such academic misconduct is a breach of an institution’s disciplinary regulations and can result in students, in serious cases, being expelled from the university.”

This has been a longstanding problem – and a decade ago Google announced that it would stop running adverts from essay writing services, but such businesses can still be found through online searches.

It really is good to see the Minister calling for action but tackling the essay mills and this industrial scale cheating does require a proper, co-ordinated approach including guidance from the QAA, actions from institutions – together with the severest of penalties for offenders – and much more creative approaches to assessment to limit the opportunities for essay mill sales. But it also needs legislation too, along the lines of the proposed amendment to the HE & Research Bill from Lord Storey and Baroness Garden of Frognal which intended to make it an offence to provide or advertise cheating services such as those provided by these essay cheat companies.

Banning the essay mill companies may not be wholly realistic, but we do need to tackle these operations which somehow still manage to look half respectable despite being fundamentally dedicated to profiteering from helping students cheat. We also need to acknowledge that the essay mills are drawing in academics and graduates in need of employment into supporting corrupt behaviour by providing essays for student cheats.

Although the Minister has not indicated support for the legislative changes suggested in the Lords, he has set out his expectations in the latest Grant letter to HEFCE:

Cheating of any kind is totally unacceptable and plagiarism is a scourge on our higher education system. QAA’s recent report ‘Plagiarism in Higher Education’ has highlighted the urgency of tackling custom essay writing services (or ‘essay mills’). We would ask that you work with us, QAA and sector bodies to take action on this important issue. Whilst this is an issue that must be addressed in partnership, it is vital that our forthcoming initiatives have your full and active support. In particular, we believe that HEFCE can play a critical role, alongside the QAA, in exploring ways to limit the visibility and presence of such companies, both digitally and on campuses, and ensuring that providers have rigorous, robust and consistently applied sanctions for those who cheat in this way.

This is encouraging, but we do need to go further. inews commented on a recent piece of research which recommended that heavy fines on essay mills and noted that current laws do not enable criminal cases to be brought against them. This analysis has

led academics at the Swansea University Medical School to recommend the Government bring in tougher new regulations to impose fines on companies that are helping students to cheat.

Michael Draper, Associate Professor at Swansea’s College of Law and Criminology and co-author of the research, said any fine would need to be large enough to hurt company balance sheets.

“It can’t be something that could be looked at as an added overhead, it must be big enough to hit their profits,” Prof Draper said. “But the challenge is also about changing students’ behaviour, this is about academic integrity and ensuring students learn.”

The report, published in the International Journal for Educational Integrity, also recommends universities use more face to face presentations and practical skill assessments to limit the use of essays bought online.

The study follows a similar report published by the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) on behalf of the Government in the summer. The regulator recommended the UK should follow New Zealand’s lead, which sets fines at more than £5,000.

QAA chief executive Douglas Blackstock said students put their academic qualification, their reputation and future professional career at risk if they are found to have cheated.

“However, the consequences for companies that sell essays as so-called ‘study aids’ are nowhere near as serious. In 2016 we conducted an investigation into contract cheating and have called for a change in the law, preventing companies from advertising and selling services which lead to academic fraud,” he added.
The Government has so far resisted introducing new regulatory powers, but pressure is mounting on ministers to take action.

Further details on the piece on which inews was commenting, and the issue of the need for legislative changes can be found here.

In its coverage of this story the Telegraph comments on UK Essays which I also referred to in my earlier piece

Among the company’s under fire for their controversial services is UK Essays, owned by Nottingham-based parent company All Answers Ltd, which told this newspaper that international students and the heavy workloads required by top universities were fuelling the company’s rapid expansion.

Providing bespoke essays and dissertations with a “guaranteed” first class grade, UK Essays charges students typical fees of £800 and £400 for original pieces of work written by hundreds of freelance and inhouse staff at its headquarters at Venture House, Nottingham.

According to the company’s CEO, Daniel Dennehy, the number of students requesting bespoke essays is increasing by about 2,000 students a year, with the company now generating turnover of £5m last year.
Mr Dennehy strongly denied that UK Essays was facilitating cheating when questioned by The Telegraph, adding that his company provided “valuable services to overworked students”.

Mr Dennehy also commented on my post saying that his company wanted “to work with universities” but it still seems hard to imagine ways in which universities could work co-operatively with companies which charge students large sums to help them undermine the integrity of assessment processes and ultimately devalue the standard of this country’s higher education.

Unemployed professors – the prospectus

And if anyone is in any doubt about the nature of these companies and what they offer then have a look at which describes its origins thus:

The Unemployed Professor thought. He had enjoyed teaching. He had wanted to help his students. He had also liked being able to buy food and books and to pay rent. He thought some more, since this was his specialty. Could he use his education to help students? He could!


The academic proceeded to bring others to the suit: the tenured professor with the gambling problem; the advanced grad student who could no longer get student loans and needed to pay for the expenses associated with a newborn; the young professor just out of grad school who kept getting offered mere one year contracts when all she sought was the tenure track; and many more. All of these academics, spit out or spit on by the system, have become virtual mercenaries – Unemployed Professors everywhere have united to rid you of the tedium that unnecessarily drags down your dreams and ambitions. Let’s face it – academia is a machine that thrives only on what it incestuously produces. The people writing for you here are those who’ve been sucked in and spit out by this machine. Why are we here? In short, our job is to make sure the same thing doesn’t happen to you.

It’s brazen. These essay mills are exploiting students’ (particularly international students’) anxiety and uncertainties about assessment and their business models are essentially concerned with profiting from vulnerable students. There needs to be a concerted effort to stop them.

2 responses to “A joined-up approach is needed to tackle cheating

  1. The problem of plagiarism has exercised academic staff for some years before the current minister’s exhortations for action. In addition to the essay mills (market forces meeting demand if not a need) there are many freelance and relatively impoverished academics in the developing world able to produce an essay or thesis on demand. It is a global problem. A vivid memory I have is of a doctoral scholar in Nepal who produced a first class dissertation for a failing BSc student who hadn’t read the work he submitted as his own; it stated clearly in the middle of the thesis who the original author was. The student fessed up, caught red faced and red handed, that it cost him $8(US) paid by paypal.

    However, apart from brandishing disciplinary procedures at students and amending the Fraud Act to deal with the miscreants, it might be timely to consider the global problem. A mass HE system, a global internet library of resources and a nineteenth century method of assessment (mostly designed for the Gladstonian reform of the civil service) that may not be coherently connected to teaching methods and conditions. And unable to acknowledge a culture of ‘alienated learning’ brought about by the burdens of fee debt. These conditions do not excuse cheating (and ceteris paribus we cannot confirm a strong causal connection between teaching delivery and an individual’s learning) but they do suggest an explanation and that the approach suggested for tightening up assessment and stamping down on the essay mills that can encourage cheating is somewhat limited in its purely punitive approach.

    Some of the approaches to reduce the ability to cheat in the curriculum have been perhaps too marginal to the discussions on plagiarism, and indeed to the wider question of not only how but what is to be delivered in the curriculum. Some of those approaches seem to rely upon small group teaching which may not be possible in the mass system. There have been significant changes with the mass HE system from support services – to rights and representation. (Much of this brought about by external forces such as the OIA, Equalities Act, NSS, etc. The degree of change in HE brought about by external forces as against its internal dynamics might be an interesting thesis.) The development of what might be learning outcomes and how they could be assessed is yet to meet the global challenges of what might count as ‘knowledge’.

    There are more examples of reducing cheating in the curriculum delivery in the US than in the UK. (Most UK examples follow the ‘tell your students that plagiarism is wrong’ guidance for lecturers.) There have been efforts to reverse engineer plagiarism/cheating by considering the learning assessment to expected learning outcomes. A requirement could be to reconsider the curriculum, in the global connectedness we have, at the meta-level of current curriculum.

    It is, now, more than just a problem of scale; there was, of course, the infamous ‘Scullion Scholars’ at Porterhouse.

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