Banning essay mills – it’s time to act

For Paul Greatrix the case for legislation to ban essay mills is clear.

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

I’ve written here on a number of occasions about the evils of essay mills.

Some of the lines I’ve taken have been driven by real concern for students, but many of the points have also been angry, some mocking and others deadly serious about the need for new legislation.

Obviously none of this has had any impact at all, other than allowing me to feel better about venting publicly about the issue.

Legislation matters

Of course, tackling the huge problem of essay mills requires much more than just legislation –  a new law isn’t a silver bullet, this is a multidimensional issue but the signalling of legislation is hugely important.

As the experience of the introduction of a new law in Australia shows, it can work effectively:

A number of big-name essay mills have retreated from Australia since legislation which outlawed contract cheating came into force, highlighting how countries including the UK risk falling behind, but the switch to distance learning during the pandemic could stymie further progress.

The new legislation, which came into effect at the beginning of September, has made it an offence to provide, arrange or advertise academic cheating services. Those caught doing so face up to two years in jail or fines of up to A$100,000 (£55,270).

It has led to “big name” essay mills, as well as lots of smaller sites, ending their operations in Australia. Experts in the country told Times Higher Education that this was a positive sign but warned that, particularly with more online assessments and students learning at a distance, it would not end all contract cheating in the country.

This is enormously encouraging to see and it shows that legislation can be an important part of the response to  dealing with these parasites. I’m really pleased to see Chris Skidmore focusing on this in his Private Members’ Bill – which we can only hope will progress further.

Essay mills and the charlatans who run them operate a business model which, at its heart, is based on deriving profit from corrupting the higher education assessment process and exploiting the vulnerabilities and anxieties of students. These companies have to be stopped and we need legislation to help make that happen.

But it is not just about new laws, we have to address other aspects too and this is why this guidance published last year by the QAA is important. The Guide “Contracting to Cheat: How to Address Essay Mills and Contract Cheating” shows that many universities are making good progress with tackling the essay mill cheaters but that more needs to be done. This really helpful QAA paper updates earlier guidance, offering new advice, intelligence and good practice in response to the continually developing and growing essay mill threat.

The essay mills really are a threat

Let’s be clear, the people who run essay mills, who provide the essays for money as part of the cheating business are all engaged in a huge cynical, corrupt and exploitative operation which undermines the UK higher education sector’s hard won reputation and damages many students. We need to stop them.

This recent article in the Telegraph highlights some of the worst examples of essay mill behaviour – students buy poor quality products and are then blackmailed by the essay mill company with the threat of being reported to their university for having utilised the service in the first place.

What is most surprising about the piece is that it is actually arguing against proposed legislation, despite quoting Chris Skidmore on the importance of it. Instead it prefers the views of a couple of lawyers who seem to make their living from supporting students engaged in litigation against their universities and see legislation as unnecessary. These lawyers seem to be more concerned that universities aren’t helping them as much as they would wish in enabling their business to prosper:

“I think it is symptomatic of deeper problems in higher education,” he told The Telegraph. “Students [are] paying tens of thousands of pounds for what is essentially a distance learning course under house arrest… students who are getting a completely different experience from what they paid for seem to be getting little or nothing, so it does all tie in.”

“Another problem is there is quite a lot of vagueness when it comes to what academic misconduct actually is,” Mr Jacobs added. “A lot of universities get to create their own definitions.” Plagiarism software has failed to keep up with the detection-evasion techniques of essay mills, so academics are left to make subjective judgements.

This confusion, coupled with lawyers being barred from accompanying students in many academic malpractice panels, has seen Dr Sokol deal with devastated students expelled after being falsely accused of cheating.

“You’ve got innocent students who are found guilty… these students are conveniently forgotten,” he said. “I’m not convinced that most universities have sufficient training for their decision-makers to avoid miscarriages of justice.”

This all demonstrates how far-reaching is the impact of the appalling practices of essay mills.

Banning the essay mills

The minor concerns of universities’ operation of their own regulations are, of course, a complete distraction from the fundamental issue here which is that it is the whole pernicious essay mill enterprise which is undermining the academic integrity of our sector. It is not our own regulations which are the core problem here. We have to have legislation to outlaw these agencies if we are to address the cynical, exploitative essay mill business.

Chris Skidmore’s bill is unlikely to succeed. Introduced under the Ten Minute Rule, it will only be discussed further if all Private Member’s Bills introduced via the traditional Friday sittings are discussed, or if the government actively chooses to progress it. But it does highlight a pressing need for action: let’s ban essay mills for good.

5 responses to “Banning essay mills – it’s time to act

  1. We are the “couple of lawyers” referred to, rather dismissively, in Mr Paul Greatrix’s article Banning essay mills – it’s time to act’ (WONKHE, 16th March 2021).

    In our work, we represent students who have been accused of using essay mills. Some are ‘guilty’ of the academic offence and others are innocent. Occasionally, we assist students who have been blackmailed by essay mills. One of us (Daniel Sokol) helped the blackmailed students in the Telegraph article referred to in Mr Greatrix’s article and, with the students’ consent, wrote up their cases so that others could learn from them. After many years of work in this field, at the coal face rather than in the armchair, we feel in a position to comment on the subject of essay mills.

    Mr Greatrix, in his article, laments the fact that the Telegraph journalist, Ewan Somerville, ‘prefers the views of a couple of lawyers who seem to make their living from supporting students engaged in litigation against their universities and see legislation as unnecessary.’

    Perhaps Mr Greatrix would have preferred if we made our living supporting universities rather than students but even students have the right to obtain legal help. They too can have a lot to lose, whether it’s a degree, the opportunity to work in a certain profession, or their reputation.

    We are not against the passing of legislation to ban essay mills but it is naïve to believe that this will solve the problem. For example, we see many students using personal tutors to write their essays for them and we are aware of at least one essay-writing company who has indicated that, if banned, it will “pivot” to the lucrative personal tutoring market. It may be better to focus on tackling the underlying causes of students resorting to essay mills, reducing the temptations of buying an essay, and finding ways to dissuade students from using these services.

    Mr Greatrix adds ‘These lawyers seem to be more concerned that universities aren’t helping them as much as they would wish in enabling their business to prosper’. Our businesses prosper because of the incompetence and mistakes of universities. When it comes to appeals and complaints, whether in respect of academic or non-academic matters, we have found the standard of training, investigation and decision-making at universities to be poor (with some exceptions, of course). Sadly, these errors can have life-changing effects on students and their families. In some cases, they lead to significant financial losses (particularly in loss of earning capacity) and psychiatric problems.

    In order to improve the system, we have offered training to universities and student advisers. We have written articles setting out the problems and calling for change. Having seen first-hand the consequences of bad decisions on students, we want to see an end to the university injustice system. One key problem is that many universities refuse to accept that there is a problem. They view themselves as infallible. There is no introspection, no self-doubt. They are quick to blame others – students, lawyers, society – but never themselves.

    It is disheartening, therefore, to see Mr Greatrix write of the ‘minor concerns of universities’ operation of their own regulations’. For the students at the wrong end of their university’s blunders, they are not ‘minor concerns’. They are far more important to them than the alleged dilution of the value of the institution’s degree caused by the use of essay mills. One danger is real, the other abstract.

    We are concerned about essay mills ‘undermining the academic integrity’ of the higher education sector, as Mr Greatrix writes. The fact that we help students accused of using essay mills, without judgement or criticism, certainly does not mean that we endorse or support essay mills, just as lawyers who represent murderers do not condone murder. However, we are even more concerned about the misery that poor university decisions can cause students and their families.

    If a genie offered us the choice of ‘no more essay mills’ or ‘no more unfair decisions by universities affecting students’, we would choose the latter without a moment’s hesitation.

    Daniel Sokol is a former university lecturer and barrister at Alpha Academic Appeals. Robin Jacobs is a barrister at SinclairsLaw.

    1. You write, “If a genie offered us the choice of ‘no more essay mills’ or ‘no more unfair decisions by universities affecting students’, we would choose the latter without a moment’s hesitation.” This may be lawyerly rhetoric, but it’s not a real choice and, by presenting it as an either/or, you do a disservice to your arguments, to Paul Greatrix’s and to the causes of better educational standards and students’ academic rights.

      It is, of course, possible both to legislate against essay mills and to put in place further safeguards against unfair decisions. Neither cheating nor unfair decisions will be completely eliminated and, as you have intimated, anyone who imagines it’s that simple is fooling themselves.

      That doesn’t however mean that legislation against essay mills won’t help. On the contrary, the further we can push such practices to the fringes, the harder it will be for them and the more obvious it will be to students that, by using them, they are cheating. And on that point, if you want to eliminate unfair decisions affecting students, it is very unfair on a student who wins their degree honestly to be compared by an employer, say, with a student who bought theirs by getting someone else to do the work.

      1. Excellent points from Johnny Rich; I was going to make the same point about the false dilemma presented by Daniel Sokol above. Their concern would be slightly more believable without falling guilty of naughtiness such as that.

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