Universities should impose tougher penalties on students who are caught using essay mills, the UK government has said.
Jo Johnson, the universities minister, has asked sector bodies to draw up new guidance to help institutions combat the websites, which provide custom-written essays for students to submit as part of their degree, as well as other forms of plagiarism.
Calling for a united approach to address the issue, Mr Johnson warned that the proliferation of essay mills “threaten[s] to undermine” the reputation of UK degrees.
He said that the guidance, which will be drawn up with input from the Quality Assurance Agency, Universities UK and the National Union of Students, should include tough new penalties for those using such websites. The organisations have also been asked to draw up new information for students detailing the potential repercussions to their future careers if they are caught cheating.
“This form of cheating is unacceptable and every university should have strong policies and sanctions in place to detect and deal with it,” Mr Johnson said. “Essay mill websites threaten to undermine the high quality reputation of a UK degree so it is vital that the sector works together to address this in a consistent and robust way.”
The government’s proposals follow an investigation, carried out by the QAA last year, into the use of essay mills in the UK. The QAA’s report found that essay mills were a “growing threat to UK higher education”, charging as little as £15 for a short essay and as much as £6,750 for a 100,000-word PhD thesis. Further work by the QAA has confirmed that there are more than 100 essay mill websites currently in operation.
The report called on essay mills to be barred from advertising in public places and blocked from internet search engine results, and urged the government to consider legislation to ban custom essay writing services. It cited the example of New Zealand, where amendments to laws in 2011 made it illegal to advertise or provide third-party assistance to cheat.
The Department for Education confirmed to Times Higher Education that the call for guidance did not mean that future legislation on the issue was out of the question.
“Essay mills are a major challenge for universities and colleges because, unlike other forms of cheating, the practice is notoriously difficult to detect,” said Ian Kimber, the QAA’s director of universities, quality enhancement and standards. “We look forward to continuing our work with the government and sector colleagues in addressing an issue potentially damaging to students and the reputation of UK higher education.”
Dame Julia Goodfellow, president of Universities UK, said institutions took plagiarism and cheating “extremely seriously”.
“Universities have severe penalties for students found to be submitting work that is not their own,” she said. “Such academic misconduct is a breach of an institution's disciplinary regulations and can result in students…being expelled from the university. The sector has already done a lot of work in this area and universities have become more experienced in detecting and dealing with such forms of cheating.”
The new guidance and student information is expected to be made available for the beginning of the 2017-18 academic year.