Contract cheating campaigners turn focus to UK devolved nations

Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland must follow English lead on outlawing essay mills

October 15, 2021
Source: iStock

Campaigners against contract cheating are shifting their focus to the UK’s devolved nations as England prepares to outlaw essay mills.

On 5 October, the Westminster government announced an amendment to the Skills and Post-16 Education Bill, currently making its way through Parliament, that would make it a criminal offence in England to “provide, arrange or advertise…cheating services for financial gain to students” in universities.

The amendment has been hailed as a victory for academic integrity and against websites that profit from helping student cheat. With the government’s majority, the bill and the amendment look set to pass.

However, Gareth Crossman, head of policy and communications at the UK’s Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education, which has been pushing for the legislation, said now the “focus must shift” to helping to facilitate the legislation’s extension to the devolved nations.

The skills bill relates only to England, and Mr Crossman said he believed the feeling in Westminster was that the legislation “had to be done through the bill, and therefore be done now”.

“It’s important for this to be a UK-wide measure,” he added. “Both in practical terms, by stopping an essay mill in England just uprooting their headquarters to Scotland, but also because, while higher education is a devolved issue, internationally we are viewed as the UK, so it’s important for us to be able to demonstrate that this is action taken by UK higher education.”

The devolved nations could either pass their own legislation or agree to a legislative consent motion, he said.

Michael Draper, professor of legal studies at Swansea University, who has helped to develop the legislation against contract cheating in England, the Republic of Ireland and Australia, agreed.

The speed of the skills bill’s progress through Parliament means that it is unlikely that the other nations will have time to give legislative consent, so “enforcement of this in the devolved nations will be an issue”, he said.

“Hopefully they will adopt the same legislation though their own parliaments to ensure consistency across the UK”, Professor Draper said.

For Professor Draper and Mr Crossman, a key benefit of the English legislation was the inclusion of “strict liability”, meaning that there is no need to show that a company knew that a student would submit a purchased essay as their own.

This, Professor Draper said, is what is missing from New Zealand’s legislation and likely why the country has not seen any prosecutions. In Australia, which does include strict liability, action has been taken against essay mills.

Mr Crossman added that England’s law was unlikely to result in lots of prosecutions, but the main thing would be that it would tell platforms, such as Google, PayPal and Facebook, that these sites are illegal and must be taken down.

“The big thing was to get legislation through in the UK. But I’ve always said that while legislation is great, it's not going to solve essay mills,” Mr Crossman said. “It’s only a step, and what it does do in the UK is make it much more difficult for them to market.”

anna.mckie@timeshighereducation.com

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