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.
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.