A landmark study has revealed a rapid increase in the use of contract cheating by students at universities around the world.
Based on recent surveys, the paper concludes that as many as one in seven recent graduates may have recruited someone else to undertake an assignment for them – potentially representing 31 million learners across the globe.
Phil Newton, director of learning and teaching at Swansea University Medical School and author of the study, said: “The numbers are clearly going up.”
For the study, published this week in Frontiers in Education, Professor Newton analysed 71 survey samples from 65 studies dating back as far as 1978, covering 54,514 participants.
Across the sample, 3.5 per cent of students admitted to contract cheating, which ranges from getting a friend to write your essay to paying an essay mill for one.
However, rates of contract cheating tended to be much lower in older surveys, whereas, among samples dating from 2014 onwards, the average rate of contract cheating rose to 15.7 per cent.
Some surveys have indicated particularly high levels of contract cheating: one, conducted in the UK in 2012, found that 29.5 per cent of respondents had bought a paper off the internet. Another, conducted in Turkey the same year, found that 18.9 per cent of students admitted to paying someone to write an essay for them, while a survey conducted in the US in 2011 found that 7.1 per cent of students confessed to “submitting a paper purchased or obtained from a website”.
Professor Newton suggested that the data he found were actually likely to underestimate levels of contract cheating, as students surveyed at their own university often feared reprisals for truly honest answers and research shows that the profile of those most likely to answer surveys are also those least likely to cheat.
“To tackle the problem, we are going to have to have more conversations with staff and students about academic integrity and how to promote it and, clearly, we need legislation. As countries like [the Republic of] Ireland and the US legislate against it, the UK risks becoming the country where essay mills find it easy to do business,” Professor Newton said.
Others agree: a petition to “ban the provision and advertising of ‘essay mill’ cheating services” in the UK, launched on 22 August, has already garnered more than 2,000 signatures. It was launched by Iain Mansfield, formerly a senior civil servant in the Department for Education, who said that “essay mills undermine the integrity of our universities”.
“Yet because helping someone to cheat in an academic exam is not technically illegal, they operate and advertise with impunity. The government needs to close this legal loophole,” he said.
Meanwhile, the Quality Assurance Agency recently announced that it was considering a proposal on how existing British legislation could be used to prosecute essay mill advertising. It also plans to establish a UK Centre for Academic Integrity, with a formal remit to research, analyse and combat academic misconduct.