UK ‘falling behind’ in essay mills fight without legislation

As Ireland reports success from ban on advertising, campaigners say UK risks reputation of its degrees by not following suit

March 9, 2020
Source: Getty

The UK risks jeopardising the integrity of its degrees unless it follows in the footsteps of other countries that have outlawed advertisements for essay mills, experts have said.

Previous education secretaries and higher education ministers had indicated their increasing concern about the growing market in essay mills after a 2018 paper found that it was likely that as many as one in seven recent graduates worldwide had engaged in contract cheating.

However, Times Higher Education understands that there are no current plans to introduce legislation in the UK, in contrast to the Republic of Ireland, which has passed a law banning advertising by essay-writing services, and Australia, which is proposing to outlaw contract cheating itself.

“We thought we were on the way to something. But aside from increased guidance and media attention, we haven’t got anywhere,” said Michael Draper, professor of legal studies at Swansea University, offering his assessment of the British situation.

In 2018, Sam Gyimah, who was then universities minister, said legislative options “were not off the table” after more than 40 higher education leaders called for the government to introduce a ban. In March 2019, the education minister, then Damian Hinds, said it was time to “stamp out essay mills” and called on PayPal to stop processing their payments.

However, Professor Draper has since published research on how the increased publicity and governmental pressure had changed the behaviour of essay mill companies. The findings, published in the International Journal for Educational Integrity, concluded that there had been no change.

“We’ve been having this conversation for years, but without legislation that disrupts their business model in the UK, why would [essay mills] behave any differently?” he said. “The UK is supposed to be a global leader in higher education – we must be able to guarantee the quality of our degree awards – but I fear the government’s attention is elsewhere.”

In July 2019, a private member’s bill was laid before Parliament by Lord Storey, the Liberal Democrat education spokesman in the House of Lords, that would have made it an offence to advertise cheating services for higher education assessments in England and Wales. However, Parliament was then prorogued, halting further progress.

According to Thomas Lancaster, a senior teaching fellow at Imperial College London, “the legal movement in the UK has completely stalled, and we are falling a long way behind countries like Australia, Ireland and Montenegro”.

“The key legislative approach we have to make is to stop firms being allowed to advertise to students within the UK. The advertising is blatant, persuasive, and students can’t avoid it. We need to make it as difficult as possible for contract cheating firms to do business,” he said.

Deirdre Stritch, approval and monitoring manager at Quality and Qualifications Ireland, which enforces the country’s legislation, said that the law had already passed “obvious measures of success” and that 13 adverts had been removed since it came into force last November.

The legislation also prompted work that will allow universities to block essay mills’ websites from their servers and has led to the creation of the academic integrity network.

It has not only disrupted the business model of essay mills but also “commenced a coordinated, concerted national conversation on this topic and given impetus to move at a quicker pace”, Dr Stritch said.

A Department for Education spokeswoman said that the UK government was clear it was “simply unethical for online essay writing companies to profit from a dishonest business which exploits young people”.

“We have…called on online giants to block payments and advertisements for these services,” she said. “We are not ruling out legislating, but there are a number of obstacles to eliminating essay mills through legislation, and we are working with the sector on effective ways of tackling this problem.”

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Reader's comments (7)

I have literally walked around the campus removing posters from contract cheating business from lamp posts, and forward all e-mails to our IT services people for blocking - it's a constant battle. We also need to be tougher on students who choose to cheat. They should be dismissed as soon as it is proven, not failed on the module on which they cheated, allowed a 2nd attempt, and graduated in due course. Kick them out. There is no excuse... it's not like failing to put something they found in a book or paper into their own words, failing to reference - not that they should be doing that either, but it can be done in error. There is no accident about deliberate contract cheating.
I keep receiving repeated requests to follow my social media accounts and sometimes direct e-mails from what appear to be contract cheating businesses. It is currently all too easy for the people behind these enterprises to offer their services to students, even to those people who don't seek them out.
There are three factors that have led to the rise of so called essay mills which has given rise to numerous debates on tackling the cheating production line, without giving due thought to actual underlying root causes that has sustained the cheating system and the market for so long. Legislation is not enough or in fact may not even be appropriate. What is needed is the actual overall of the system which has been incubating such academic malpractice demands in the first place. Having discussed with various faculty members/academia as well as teaching as faculty member/adjunct professor, the following underlying root factors have been identified: A - Students are increasingly coming under intense pressure to secure top grades in order to make it for their respective graduate training programmes in various professions - the honours degree with 2.2 / GPA 3 is no longer deemed enough, a minimum of 2.1 degree (GPA 3.3 - 3.5) is required by many graduate employers. Nothing less would do. A pass or 2.2 /GPA 3.3 – 3.5 is in reality a failure. Combined this, most students, bar wealthy or upper middle class students, are increasingly having to combine their studies along with semi full-time jobs in excess of 25 - 30 hrs a week to supplement their income/pay off their debts or worse to support their parents' mortgages/loans secured against their parent's homes/and or rents – students B – Students increasingly facing non-negotiable strict deadlines for assignments/courseworks that have sizeable impact on overall degree marks. This comes as an extra challenge for students who are often forced to take up various part-time jobs alongside their studies. Universities and colleges are, understandably, non-forgiving/very strict in terms of penalising the students with caped-marks if works are submitted beyond the deadline, even by few hours or 1-2 days, despite the submitted works are of high quality which otherwise would have been graded with high marks had it been submitted by due time. C - This last factor should not be seen as less impacting than the above: PhD students/post-doctoral fellow holders, including those with teaching fellowships/graduate teaching assistant roles, having no end in sight in their struggle to secure full-time faculty positions/tenure, are forced to supplement their job insecurities and ongoing economic hardships –– many who have families/household to maintain –– by proactively or too readily helping out students (more often but not always wealthy foreign students with deep pockets) in assisting with their courseworks and assignments, at times generating yearly income by as much as GBP 50,000 - 75,000 (around USD $65,000 - 100,000). In the past I can recall how wealthy parents of Chinese students in London were actually seeking PhD students or post docs, to employ them on a fixed term basis with inflation busting pay rates of anything between GBP £30 - 50,000 (USD $40-65,000) alongside their usual university roles/commitments, often with the condition that additional 'tailored' assistance would be provided to concerned students on an ‘exclusive basis’, with restrictions of not taking on any other students. One post doc fellow at a leading Russell Group university/college in London was given an entire apartment for living with his family in Bloomsbury, a leafy residential area in London populated with college campuses, on a fixed term rent free basis by a wealthy Middle Eastern parent after the post doc fellow refused any tuition payments for whatever reasons, in exchange for coaching and providing full assistance to the student siblings with their university studies on an ‘exclusive basis’. More than few post doc fellows and graduate teaching assistants/ teaching fellowships holders - common among PhD candidates and post docs, say that such frequent yet hush hush arrangements with additional source of income has come as a ‘life saver’ for them, given many have family and financial commitments in the face of ever increasing uncertainty with no end in sight of securing permanent tenureship/full time faculty/full time assistant professor roles. They say if university and colleges have no shame using the PhD candidates/post docs to manage their teaching sweatshops while at the same time have no qualms to increase ever more tuition fees, they should have no shame for the aftereffects of many academic sweatshop labourers being forced into those side jobs. One post doc said she has no regrets in coaching and moulding her own students she takes on for seminars/group tutorials only to mark the very same coursework later: “It is much better than others offering so called ‘private services’ outside the academic hours which would otherwise be seen as obscene acts damaging the image of the academic institution.” The whole issue of essay mills, plagiarism or wealthy students buying their way out to secure top grades, has to be approached in holistic way –– taking into account number of underlying factors. It cannot be solved overnight by rearranging the deck chairs or temporarily plastering over the wounds caused by underlying or external root causes. Students and the system that is incubating such behaviour would always find ways to circumvent the legislations/and or legislations can be subject to change or repeal by lobbying by vested interests including tomorrow’s politicians who came out from today’s so called essay mills production line. Other educational methods such as non western pedagogy methods e.g. Islamic seminary education ijazah (licensing) systems found in the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia (notably Dars-i Nizami/Alimiyya system), oriental or Japanese education system and 18-20th century education system can also be revisited for the purpose of evaluation and taking good practices –– as much as those ‘other’ type of education systems have their own flaws and inefficiencies, at times lacking intellectual creative thinking which the West managed to build upon post the Enlightenment era but notwithstanding such issues, the other system of the east has often stayed put with consistently producing students and scholars immune to 21st century cheating practices. In fact the same post enlightenment western education has started to show signs of wearing out by both internal and external factors i.e. overall not-fit-for-purpose rigid assignment regime amidst the challenging circumstances encountered by both time-strapped out-of-pocket students, facilitated by desperate-to-make-ends-meet PhD graduate/post docs academic sweatshop workers in the ever rising ever more competitive 21st century where it has become the place for survival of the fittest –– by hook or crook. Nothing less would do, sadly. Something seriously has gone wrong. Legislation may provide temporary plaster but it would surely not deal with underlying root causes that is fuelling such demands in the first place. It is also about time to revisit the need of grading and classification system of degrees and do away with it altogether as professional medical degrees seem to have done away with them and replace with one set of meeting minimum level of high standard benchmark criteria. NB This can also be published by THE as a separate opinion piece, under the suggested title: "Essay mills cheating: legislation would not do but a holistic overhaul of the incubating system would do" By Ismail Y Syed Twitter: @IsmailYSyed
Very insightful commentary @Ismail. Finally someone is discussing the actual causes. (I think you should submit your essay for publication independently in this or other venues)
The Council of Europe working group on academic fraud is currently putting together a draft international agreement on combatting essay mills among other things. Professor Draper and I are members. The proposed agreement will urge the 50 participating states to take whatever action is possible under their legal system to outlaw advertising of cheating services and/or creating new criminal offence(s) where existing provisions are inadequate or unenforceable, e.g. services delivered over the internet from outside the geographical area covered by the agreement. The discussion above is very useful, particularly as we know that those providing these services are often people with high academic qualifications who either cannot find a relevant job or are otherwise under financial pressure. So while legislation may be necessary, it is not the only answer to the problem.
Hello I think all the above responses are insightful and Ismail I agree that a holistic response is required - there is no one solution. However legislation in my view has a role to play on the supply side whilst we also address the issues that you have identified on the demand side. Having worked with the QQI on their legislation and to see the immediate impact that has had as identified by Dr Stritch is very welcome . I will continue to work with colleagues at the QAA and the Council of Europe to address the concerns you have raised so that we have a joined up approach to supporting ethics and integrity within HE . The 2017 QAA guidance which addresses contract cheating from this holistic viewpoint is currently being revised.
Please note that this comment is actually from Professor Michael Draper at Swansea University who was using my computer and log in as we work together.