Judge contract cheating law ‘on culture change, not prosecutions’

Campaigners say English legislation unlikely to result in many prosecutions but will change student outlook on essay mills

April 26, 2022
Collection of bound essays piled high
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New legislation criminalising essay mills in England is unlikely to lead to many prosecutions but will help change student attitudes towards cheating, supporters have claimed.

A law that bans businesses from completing assignments on behalf of students – included in the Skills and Post-16 Education Bill – is awaiting royal assent having cleared all parliamentary hurdles but academics should not expect to see a slew of convictions once it is enacted, said Tom Yates, director of corporate affairs at the Quality Assurance Agency.

The value of the legislation, according to Mr Yates, was in preventing companies from advertising their services in England and removing the “it’s not illegal” rationale many students may believe justifies paying for essays.

“Students will know that if they use an essay mill, they will be engaging with a criminal entity and…that should remove the temptation for many,” he told a Westminster Higher Education Forum conference on cheating.

Unlike in Australia and Ireland – where similar laws give responsibility for bringing prosecutions to regulators – in England, the Crown Prosecution Service will decide whether to pursue a case.

The framework for this has not yet been decided and Mr Yates said a few early test cases could send out a strong message but added that “we don’t anticipate many prosecutions in practice” because the incentive for the CPS to bring a case “isn’t perhaps as obvious as it is for an education regulator”.

Pursuing prosecutions is complicated by the sheer volume of companies operating in this area and difficulties tracking them down; up to 1,000 are listed on price comparison websites and most are based overseas. In Australia, where the law has been in place since 2020, there has been only one court injunction against a foreign essay mill to date.

Michael Draper, dean for regulations and student cases at Swansea University and an expert on academic integrity, said the success of the legislation should not be judged in prosecutions but on whether it can change the culture within universities.

The legislation makes it an offence to advertise the service, as well as provide it, and that gives enforcers more clout with online platforms to get adverts taken down, Professor Draper said.

He told the conference that, although the new law does not criminalise students themselves, more thought needed to be given to providing them with the skills needed to comply with the legislation.

“We’ve got to be mindful that students coming into higher education from schools are going to be less prepared because of the pandemic, as a result of the challenges the schools have faced around learning, teaching and assessment,” Professor Draper said.

“We can’t do business as usual in terms of preparing students for assessments. We are going to have to do something different. That is going to be crucial because students are increasingly reporting the pressure they are feeling but also imposter syndrome – they just don’t feel they are ready for the challenges of higher education and assessment.”

Professor Draper said teaching of academic study skills will become increasingly important and should be embedded in the curriculum and offered for credit if necessary, in order to get students to engage.


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