Former universities minister Chris Skidmore’s has introduced a Ten Minute Rule Bill in parliament calling to make essay mills illegal in the UK.
Specific legislation is long overdue and the only way we can stop the criminals who are profiting from our students.
Of course essay mills are the tip of the iceberg. Education fraud comes in many different guises from lies individuals tell about their qualifications on their CVs to the multi-million pound industry in fake degrees.
Degrees of trust
Our education system depends on a chain of trust. Prospective students need to be able to trust that the university/college they will be attending is legitimate.Universities and colleges need to be able to trust the pre-entry qualifications the student uses to apply.
Funding organisations need to be able to trust the legitimacy of the student’s entitlement when it comes to giving loans and grants. Universities and colleges need to trust that the student is submitting original, authentic academic work. Employers need to be able to trust those qualifications when recruiting graduates.
Fraudulent operators break down this trust and as a result risk devaluing and damaging the reputation of a UK education.
Bogus universities and diploma mills supply fake qualifications that can mount up to tens of thousands of pounds. There are vendors selling fake degree certificates online for just a few pounds. These fake diplomas can be used to apply for courses and jobs individuals simply aren’t qualified for.
While this is well documented, what is less well known is the role that essay mills play in the wider market. As well as academic assignments and dissertations, essay mills also provide documents such as personal statements and letters of recommendation to support applications for courses and also for jobs.
Gaining a place on a course gives the individual access to student funding and employers can unknowingly recruit unqualified individuals with all the risks that engenders.
The full force of law
Legislation is the key to turning all of this around; to protecting the reputation of our education system and the careers of all of those who fall victim to fraudulent operators.
I have spent the last decade entrenched in degree fraud – a consequence of running the national verification service, Hedd. Our degree fraud monitoring service was established at the government’s request in response to mounting fears about fake universities and degree fraud.
Over the years we have had success in using fraud, trademark, copyright or forgery laws as well as legislation to protect terms like “university”, “bachelors” and “masters” to force closure of bogus operators and vendors of fake documents. We rightly pursue the profiteers.
However, although the Advertising Standards Authority has upheld some complaints about advertising from essay mills, there is no specific legislation that can be used directly against them.
Students are not the criminals
Researchers at Imperial College London report that cheating is on the rise due to the pandemic. Under mounting pressure, there are many reasons why students might turn to these services – it’s far from clear-cut. But students are largely the victims, falling prey to the mounting numbers of essay mills circulating in a bid to take advantage of the current situation.
Universities rightly prefer to deal with instances of contract cheating in-house and take action under their own codes of conduct. We would rather take positive steps to educate and support students about the importance of academic integrity.
Targeted legislation specifically outlawing essay mills and their advertising would protect students from exploitation and act as a deterrent to the operators who don’t risk prosecution at present. There is clear evidence of this in other countries where such legislation has been brought in.
Essay mills are banned in Australia and it has already made a difference with sites such as EssayShark and Custom Writings now unavailable in that region. Meanwhile they operate without issue in the UK.
My fingers are crossed for the success of Chris Skidmore’s bill. It can’t come soon enough.