Skidmore hopes to push UK government to outlaw essay mills

Former universities minister calls on Department for Education to support private member’s bill outlawing contract cheating

February 15, 2021
Former universities minister Chris Skidmore
Source: Getty
Former universities minister Chris Skidmore

Former universities minister Chris Skidmore hopes that his private member’s bill on essay mills will prompt the Westminster government to finally take legislative action against contract cheating.

Proposing the bill, which would make the operation and advertising of essay mill services illegal in the UK, Mr Skidmore said contract cheating was “a rot that infects the very discipline of learning and has the potential to damage academic integrity beyond repair”.

The MP told Times Higher Education that he hoped the bill would finally force action from the Department for Education because the timing had never been more urgent.

Data from the Quality Assurance Agency showed that there were currently 932 sites in operation in the UK, up from 881 in October 2020 and 635 in June 2018, he said. Last year, the QAA warned that essay mills were targeting students in the wake of the shift to online learning.

“We’re dealing now with potentially a situation where individuals could be cheating in the online exams come summer,” Mr Skidmore said.

This is coupled with evidence that legislation does work, he said. In November, experts told THE that several big-name essay mills had retreated from Australia since legislation that outlawed contract cheating came into force, and Mr Skidmore added that similar legislation in the Republic of Ireland had also proved successful.

Mr Skidmore cited research, published in the International Journal for Educational Integrity, that found that the number of requests to a website that offered live answers to exam-style questions had ballooned by 196 per cent between 2019 and 2020.

“Hopefully now we can get in front of the DfE to talk about how we can turn this into a government bill in the future,” Mr Skidmore said.

A private member’s bill would need the support of government to move forward, and although ministers have apparently warmed to the idea of legislation and declined to rule it out, so far the DfE has asked the English regulator, the Office for Students, to take the lead on combating essay mills.

A previous private member’s bill put forward by Liberal Democrat peer Lord Storey was thwarted when Parliament was prorogued in 2019, and his proposed amendment to the Higher Education and Research Act 2017 that would have outlawed essay mills was not adopted.

Michael Draper, a professor of legal studies at Swansea University who worked on the Australian and Irish legislation, said a UK bill was “long overdue”.

“Legislation is increasingly essential in the context of the likely permanent move to online assessment as a result of Covid-19 and the supply of real-time answers to those assessments,” he said.

“The flight of essay mills from the advertising space of Australia and Ireland demonstrates just how effective legislation is to cut off the oxygen of publicity and protect students who are already anxious and vulnerable as a result of the pandemic and its long-term effects on student confidence.”

Gareth Crossman, head of policy at the QAA, said the growth of essay mills sites “shows how normalised their use is becoming”.

“The QAA fully supports the proposed criminalisation of essay mills. They are a scourge on the reputation of UK higher education, and the threat they pose is increasing as they prey on student anxiety rising from the Covid-19 pandemic,” he said.

A DfE spokeswoman said the ministry was “not ruling out legislating on the matter” and was “closely monitoring how effective legislation is in other countries”.

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