HE and Research Bill: ‘essay mill’ amendment could stamp out contract cheating

Phil Newton looks at the case for making essay-writing services illegal

January 7, 2017
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An amendment has been proposed to the Higher Education and Research Bill that would make it an “offence to provide or advertise cheating services”.

The amendment is targeted largely at so-called custom essay-writing services. These will, for a fee, custom write any sort of assignment for students. Our research shows that they are fast and cheap, and that students have a lenient view of what the consequences should be for using them.

Others have shown that the products of these services are difficult to detect.

The proposed law comes in response to growing calls for action. The Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education convened a forum in June 2016 to which both I and Lord Storey, who is proposing the amendment along with Baroness Garden of Frognal, were invited. The forum proposed a range of strategies to tackle the problem, including use of the Fraud Act 2006. With my colleague Michael Draper, an associate professor in the Swansea University College of Law and Criminology, I have subsequently examined the Fraud Act and concluded that it would not be suitable to use against “contract cheating” – a problem it was not designed to tackle. 

A new UK law is needed.

The law proposed by Lord Storey is in essence the same as one introduced in New Zealand in 2011, itself fairly similar to older laws in the US. As well as the writing of assignments, the law targets, critically, the advertising and “arranging” of such services.

Would it make a difference? I think so; it would represent a powerful, hopefully deterrent, change to the context in which these services operate. They are currently legal in the UK, and many are registered at Companies House; however, their use is prohibited under academic regulations at universities.

A lot has been written recently about the brazen way in which companies offer their products to students, creating an unwarranted legitimacy that would be removed under the proposed law. A legal change would also raise questions for companies that carry advertising for these services; they were recently advertised all over the London Underground.

Lots of things will not happen even if the law changes. It is unlikely that there will be a slew of prosecutions; there have been very few in countries where there are laws against contract cheating. This is likely attributable, in part, to the complex global nature of the phenomenon; student, writers, companies, websites and universities can all be in different countries. We will not even know if there is a reduction in contract cheating because it is hard to detect in the first place.

Anecdotally, it appears to be common; a company investigated under the New Zealand law apparently received NZ$1.1 million (£625,000) in payments from students over seven years.

Many companies use their terms and conditions to deflect responsibility for misuse of custom essays on to students; a common defence is that custom-written assignments are to be used only as “study aids”. Whether the proposed law will address this is something for my legally qualified colleagues to comment on, although it does provide for the “intention” of giving a student an “unfair advantage”.

All this means that we will need more than the law to address contract cheating. I have previously argued for an assessment-based approach to this problem; increasing the use of practical, observable assessments of what students can do, rather than essays (this would arguably be an improvement for assessment in general).

This would need backup from regulation, for example a specific requirement in the QAA Quality Code. We also need to continue other, education-based approaches for both students and staff such as the recent day of action to raise awareness among academics.

Phil Newton is the director of learning and teaching at the Swansea University Medical School. His research interests include academic integrity and evidence-based education.

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