Covid-19 is threatening to unleash a pandemic of cheating

Essay mills’ opportunism, preying on student anxiety about online assessment methods, strengthens the case for legislation, says Douglas Blackstock

December 18, 2020
test answers on a palm
Source: iStock

The acceleration of contract cheating may not be the most serious of Covid-19’s many disastrous impacts on human well-being. Nevertheless, it presents a real and present danger to academic standards across all levels of education and in all nations. And this pandemic of dishonesty is going to need concerted efforts from education providers, student organisations, quality agencies and governments to defeat.

In the past few weeks, the extent to which essay mills have sought to take advantage of the changes to teaching and assessment arising from Covid-19 has become increasingly evident and alarming. These companies or individuals that students pay to write their assignments for them are targeting student anxieties about these unexpected changes. We’ve seen examples of direct contact with students via social media, offering perks such as “reduced costs per page for essay/assignments to help students save money to buy essentials to fight the coronavirus” or promises that “our experts will help you solve your assessments online so you can stay safe at home”.

Many essay mill websites now have Trustpilot ratings. There is even a “league table” site rating the best essay mills in the UK. In October, there were 881 listed; by December, there were 904. We know of four other comparison sites, too: one has even published a map of the UK, claiming to show by nation and region which subjects have the most ghost-written essays.

Since I commented on these new developments on social media, I have been shown TikTok videos advertising essay mills, one with 1.3 million views. I’ve also been alerted to “local” adverts on Gumtree, with photos of the essay writers and their WhatsApp numbers listed.

Increasingly, we hear allegations of students being drawn in by these websites and then blackmailed.

For several years, we at the UK’s Quality Assurance Agency have been doing what we can to keep a lid on contract cheating. We have galvanised support on behalf of our member institutions to produce recently refreshed guidance and support for academic staff, students and institutions. We have been supported in this by UK education ministers, the National Union of Students and many universities and colleges. We have also been helped by a dedicated group of academic staff who research this activity, as well as by a range of sector bodies, parliamentarians, tech companies and many journalists. Working with the BBC, we managed to get YouTube, Facebook and Google to remove hundreds of online advertisements and to convince PayPal to block payments. But none of this has been enough.

To be blunt, QAA doesn’t have the resources to combat essay mills alone. Our modest proposal for a UK Centre for Academic Integrity to research, analyse and combat academic misconduct didn’t gather sufficient support and since the QAA no longer receives public funding (except in Scotland) our staffing has reduced by 60 per cent since 2016. In the meantime, essay mills have mushroomed – you don’t have 904 active businesses if there is no revenue stream – and it appears they are now also starting to target further education colleges and secondary schools.

Thanks to the work of our colleagues in Australia and the Republic of Ireland, those countries have now legislated to outlaw essay mills. The QAA has called for the UK to follow suit and we are keen to see legislation as soon as possible in the current parliament.

Don’t get me wrong: this is a wicked problem to legislate on given the international nature of many of these businesses, the devolved nature of education regulation in the UK, the difficulty of working out which is the right body to enforce any law and the need to ensure that relatives or friends who offer to proofread an essay aren’t inadvertently criminalised. But it is a problem that we can’t ignore.

We are supporting our member institutions with a QAA Academic Integrity Charter, to be formally launched in early 2021. Institutions signing up to it are making a commitment to work with staff and students, as well as collaborate with the wider sector, to take action against academic misconduct and promote integrity. We want to help government, too, by offering practical advice and working to find meaningful and enforceable action that politicians could take to defeat this rogue industry that threatens to undermine all the efforts universities have made to continue their educative missions through these unprecedented circumstances.

As we emerge from the pandemic and all the economic damage it has inflicted, countries will, more than ever, need graduates who are genuinely capable of doing what it their degree certificates say they can do.

Douglas Blackstock is chief executive of the Quality Assurance Agency.

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.

Related articles