The UK government has insisted that legislating against essay mills is “not off the table”, after more than 40 higher education leaders signed a letter calling for a ban.
The letter, backed by Universities UK and the Russell Group, says that the use of contract cheating websites is increasing despite institutions’ efforts to control it and that “it is clear to us the time has come for the government to give legislative backing to the efforts to shut down these operations”.
In response, universities minister Sam Gyimah said: “Legislative options are not off the table, but I also expect universities to be taking steps to tackle this issue.”
England’s higher education regulator, the Office for Students, would “take tough action” against institutions if they failed to combat essay mills, Mr Gyimah added.
A study published last month estimated that as many as one in seven students globally may have recruited someone else to undertake an assignment for them.
Bespoke undergraduate essays are available online for a couple of hundred pounds, while some sites offer dissertation and PhD thesis writing services for higher fees.
The letter, sent to education secretary Damian Hinds, highlights that New Zealand, Ireland, Australia and 17 US states have all introduced or are introducing a ban on contract cheating websites.
While legislation barring the operation or advertising of an essay mill would “not be a magic bullet”, the letter says, it would be “a vital part of the broader package of measures”.
“Legislation would, amongst other advantages, shut down UK-based essay mills; prevent the advertising of their services near campuses and in public places such as the London Underground; enable the removal of essay mills from search engine findings and prevent UK-based companies from hosting online advertisements for essay mills,” the letter says.
“Most importantly, it will send a clear statement to the global higher education sector that the integrity of a UK degree is valued by the government.”
The letter highlights that contract cheating is “particularly hard to detect” and adds that universities will “continue to do their part” to tackle it.
Its signatories include Dame Janet Beer, vice-chancellor of the University of Liverpool and president of Universities UK, and Sir Anton Muscatelli, principal of the University of Glasgow and chair of the Russell Group.