I’ve written here quite a few times now, most recently here but also here and here, about the corrosive effect of the profiteering essay mill industry and the growing threat it represents to the integrity of UK higher education.
It has been terrific therefore to see in recent weeks a big campaign launched to ban essay mills in the UK as has been done in New Zealand. Australia and Ireland are also considering similar moves.
Cheating is big business
Professor Phil Newton, one of the leading figures in analysing and challenging the essay mills, has shown the scale of the issue in his recent paper How Common Is Commercial Contract Cheating in Higher Education and Is It Increasing? A Systematic Review.
This was handily summarised by the BBC thus:
The survey of more than 50,000 students, found 15.7% admitted to cheating since 2014 – up from an average of 3.5% over the last 40 years. It means about one in seven recent graduates have paid someone else to do their work for them – which could represent 31 million people worldwide.
Essay mills are legal in the UK
The study undertaken by Newton looked at information dating back 40 years and covered 54,514 participants from around the world. It showed the amount of students admitting to contract cheating has increased over time.
But Newton, director of learning and teaching at Swansea Medical School, suggests the number could be much higher, as students who have paid for essays to be written are far less likely to volunteer to take part in surveys on cheating.
These findings underscore the need for legislation to tackle essay mills, alongside improvements in the way students are assessed and awareness-raising of the fundamentals of academic integrity. We need to utilise assessment methods that promote learning and at the same time reduce the likelihood that contract cheating can happen.
Campaign to ban the essay mills
The latest campaign, spearheaded by Wonkhe contributing editor Iain Mansfield, took off last week with a letter to the education secretary from over 40 vice chancellors and which received some major media coverage:
Universities minister Sam Gyimah said the government was working to “bear down” on the problem – and added that “legislative options are not off the table”.
A recent survey of students around the world by Swansea University found about 15% had cheated in the past four years, up from an average of 3.5% over the past 40 years.
It also suggested 31 million students globally had paid someone else to undertake their work.
The vice chancellors say making the services illegal would stop them operating out of the UK and allow them to be removed from online search engine findings.
In the letter, they call on the government to commit to introducing legislation to ban the provision and advertising of essay mills before the end of this Parliament.
Banning is not enough
We have to tackle this issue and these companies which somehow seem to present themselves as a part of the education sector despite being fundamentally dedicated to helping students cheat. While we are still waiting for legislation, guidance has been published by QAA on how universities should set best practice around promoting academic integrity and tackling essay mills and other forms of contract cheating.
Newton, writing with Michael Draper, has set out in a recent paper how the law could be changed to address this issue. In the article, ‘A legal approach to tackling contract cheating?’ the authors present a proposal for a specific new law which could be enacted in most jurisdictions. From the abstract:
We test our proposed new law against a number of issues that would need to be considered before any legal approach could be successful; would changing the legal status of contract cheating make it less likely to happen? Could this be achieved in a specific way? If so, who should actually be prosecuted and what offence are they committing? Would it actually address the causes of contract cheating? We suggest some answers to these questions, but then also identify a number of unintended potential consequences. We therefore additionally consider whether a legal approach is possible or even desirable.
We conclude that a legal approach to contract cheating is possible, and, on balance, appropriate. Using UK law as an example, we offer a specific suggestion to lawmakers, around the world, for how this might be achieved, and conclude that the most successful approach would be to focus largely on a law targeting the providers of contract cheating, in particular commercial services.
Protesting too much
One of these companies, which goes under a number of brands including All Answers, UK Essays, UK Dissertations and Degree Essays, happens to be based in Nottingham, just a few miles from the city’s universities. It’s chief operating officer, pictured here pointing at his company’s logo inexplicably close to those of University of Nottingham and NTU, claims to be somewhat camera shy.
A Sky News report on essay mills on 27 September saw the reporter turn up to his office but had to interview him by phone from the lobby because he would not appear on camera.
“We refuse to sell to cheats”
It’s not entirely clear why this company sees itself as the soul of academic integrity but, as its response to the petition shows, it strongly believes in its own legitimacy:
There are two types of company in our industry: those who promote cheating and couldn’t care less about academic integrity, which are largely based overseas; and those like us, who are active in preserving academic integrity, educating our clients about plagiarism and combatting the issue of cheating. Make no mistake – students who contact us with the vaguest allusion to using our service dishonestly are reprimanded and even denied service. We, as a legitimate UK company, refuse to sell to cheats.
The fact that it has had over 25,000 customers for whom more than 1.4 billion words has been written is not reassuring:
Our services are, when used correctly, no different to using the services of a tutor, discussing work with classmates or using published academic resources as a point of reference.
The essay mills are a malign influence in our sector. These outfits are corrupting, cynical and exploitative, preying on vulnerable students and exploiting their anxieties for profit. Although students may be advised not to submit purchased work as their own, the existence and success of companies such as this is predicated on that very premise.
These parasitical operations have no place in our sector. It’s great news therefore that a petition has been launched to seek to persuade the government to make it illegal to provide or advertise contract cheating services just as they have in New Zealand and in many US states.
Please do sign the petition.
Support for the campaign has also been forthcoming from the Office for Students and Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of OfS, commented:
Essay mills are deeply unethical, and their operation is unfair on the vast majority of students who hand in their own work. The Office for Students has a central role to play in ending essay mills; universities and colleges wishing to register with us must demonstrate that they are protecting the reliability and credibility of degree standards.
This line was echoed by the Minister:
I have to say I am a bit disappointed to be told that universities will be in trouble if we fail to take action but welcome the comment that legislation remains a possibility. So, with that in mind, do sign the petition if you haven’t already and let’s keep the pressure on to ban the essay mills.