Many university staff back prosecuting students over essay mills

THE survey finds support among academics for harsher punishments for students, following paper that reports ‘surprising’ level of support for criminalising users of contract cheating services

March 7, 2019
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Essay mills should be made illegal and the punishments for students who use them must be harsher, according to academics surveyed by Times Higher Education, following publication of a new journal paper that finds “surprising” levels of support among university staff “for the criminalising of student use of these services”.

The THE survey – based on a self-selecting group of 230 respondents – found 84 per cent believe that essay mills should be illegal. It also found that a significant minority – 41 per cent – believe that students should be criminalised for using such services.

According to one Australian respondent, the scale of contract cheating “is vast, and if we believe otherwise we are kidding ourselves. Any solution that doesn’t place onus back on students as well as contractors is doomed to failure.”

The survey follows a recently published paper by Phil Newton, director of learning and teaching at Swansea University Medical School, and Rebecca Awdry, a PhD student at the Centre for Research in Assessment and Digital Learning at Deakin University in Australia, which analysed a survey of 196 respondents in Australian and UK universities and found that there was “modest, qualified support for the criminalising of student use of these services”. Nearly 50 per cent of those surveyed “strongly agreed” with the idea of criminalising the behaviour of students who engage in contract cheating, the paper reported. However, the authors say that many of these respondents subsequently backtracked on this tough stance later in the survey.

The results of both surveys demonstrate an increasing frustration within academia over the issue of contract cheating. THE’s survey showed that 70 per cent of respondents have suspected one of their students of using contract cheating services, while 63 per cent said that a student of theirs had been proved to have cheated in this way. A 2018 paper by Professor Newton found that it was likely that as many as one in seven recent graduates has used contract cheating services.

Both Professor Newton and Ms Awdry said that they were “surprised” by the number of participants to their survey, carried out in 2016, who indicated support for criminalising students who use commercial contract cheating services. Ms Awdry said that the use of contract cheating can often relate to external pressures placed on young people. “Universities need to continue to be proactive educators. As such, there is more work that can be done to deter this without criminalising these behaviours against students,” she said.

In 2017, the UK’s Department for Education said that it was consulting on a range of options to tackle essay mills in England, including criminalising students, and asked the Quality Assurance Agency to develop them.

The QAA has since convened a working group on academic integrity and Gareth Crossman, the agency's head of policy and public affairs, told THE that it has put together a series of proposals that would require legislation from the government. However, Mr Crossman added that the work had focused on criminalising the operators of essay mills, not the students.

A DfE spokesman said that “universities should also be taking steps to tackle this issue, by investing in detection software and educating students on the severe consequences they face if caught cheating”.

He added that the DfE has “not ruled out bringing forward further legislation to outlaw contract cheating services and essay mills”.

One respondent, who has worked in a “plagiarism office” at an English university, told THE that criminalising students was “the way forward. There are students who for whatever reason prefer to outsource their work to others. For me this is fraud, as this is passing off the intellectual property of another as your own, and doing so results in fraudulently getting a degree that you are not entitled to,” she said.

But the sticking point for many academics is the university’s duty of care towards students and how criminalisation could affect them in later life.

Irene Glendinning, academic manager for student experience at Coventry University, said that she was “seriously opposed” to any legislation on the subject that would result in students having a criminal record. “Our job is to educate students and to help them to get back on track if they stray,” she said. However, she added that universities “should not be afraid to suspend or expel students, as long as we can show they were aware what the consequences would be”.

Others told the THE survey that making essay mills illegal would have a sufficiently deterrent effect on students. “[Criminalising students] would be limited in efficacy in the sense of convictions reducing the number of offenders,” according to an academic at an English university. “But the law holds a moral weight that will make students think twice about using these services to pass a course.”

Cath Ellis, associate dean (education) at Australia’s University of New South Wales, who has researched student and staff views on contract cheating, said that “the students ordering the work, the writers doing the work and the company owners are all probably better able to convince themselves that they are not doing anything wrong because it is not a crime. That’s absolutely a huge problem.”

However, she added that one inevitable consequence of criminalising student behaviour would be a reduction in reported cases. If academics feel that referring potential cheating cases might give a student a criminal record, they are likely to be hesitant to push forward, she said. “This is the opposite of what we want.”

Globally the legal picture is mixed: New Zealand, Ireland and some states in the US have taken steps to make essay mills illegal, whereas in the UK, efforts to tackle essay mills have – as yet – not led to legislation.

THE survey respondents on contract cheating

“Many institutions are in denial about this problem, or so naive that they are only looking for old-fashioned plagiarism” – UK lecturer

“I chair my department’s academic misconduct panel and think contract cheating is extremely difficult to catch” – UK senior academic

“The fact that these services can advertise on the internet and are easy to find has normalised them. Students are now less clear about what is or is not allowed than they were 20 years ago” – lecturer at a continental European university

“It needs to be dealt with with much more rigour than is presently the case and students need to know that it won’t be tolerated and that sanctions will be applied” – Australian head of department

“Criminalising this behaviour would be insane. However, granting degrees to cheaters devalues degrees. Expulsion is a bad enough consequence, but you have to enforce it every time” – US lecturer

“With the monetisation of higher education, institutions increasingly take fees from students who don’t have a reasonable prospect of completing the degree, and see international students in particular as cash cows. To a certain extent, this profit-driven culture almost encourages students to find ways to cheat in order to make their considerable investment worthwhile” – UK teaching fellow

“Course assessment should be designed in a way that essay mills are of no use to students (for example, use of supervised exams, in-class presentations, short turnaround on take-home exams)” – senior lecturer at a continental European university.


Print headline: Should students who use essay mills be criminalised?

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Reader's comments (15)

Lets recap those working in Higher Education are writing essays for students in their spare time to raise extra cash. Those members of staff then want to criticise and criminalise their own customers. The writers know what they are doing they have to be experienced. There is a whiff of corruption about this whole thing. It doesn't end there with the business of education.
Clearly some academics have not thought this through. Whist I abhor cheating, in any form, the idea that students would be referred to the police and investigated as criminals is absurd. Leaving aside the issues of staff resources and policing priorities, the burden of proof (beyond reasonable doubt) is far beyond that currently required and in almost all cases a confession would be needed to secure a conviction. The damage to students and their relationship to staff would be catastrophic. Yes, by all means, criminalise the providers and suppliers of essays but please NOT the learners.
The penalties for cheating at universities are clear and remain (largely!) adequate. However, allow me to propose an alternative viewpoint. Are (some) students not victims in this setting? To feel as though your only option is to pay exorbitant charges to get the high grades, that you aren't enough on your own to get high grades and feeling that "everyone else is doing it"? Granted, this isn't every student, but the current extreme consequence of being expelled from the university is sufficient; we don't need to tar such students with a criminal record as well. Let's educate our students to make smarter decisions, to provide better support for them completing their own assignments and to provide valuable constructive feedback (and guidance on how to use it!) to improve on their own.
What about the essay mills that write admission essays to US Universities. Universities base the admission on these essays when in reality most of the students have either got them written by experts or have had the experts make significant modifications to their essays.
To call such companies 'essay mills' is highly misleading I think. They can be a front for criminal activity. I have known students who have, of course, wrongly approached them for 'help' only to find themselves subject to blackmail once the 'service' was agreed. They then find themselves in a nasty trap. All of us involved in HE need to collaborate to shine a light on the criminality involved. I also think that we need to discuss so called 'proof-reading' companies. This seems to be another unregulated area about which guidance to students is varied and a degree of greyness exists in the thinking and policies of institutions and regulators.
I would be satisfied if any student proven to have submitted an essay written by someone else for them was kicked out of the university. No retakes, no second chances. They are adults and they know what they are doing. What's harder to deal with is students plagiarising code. That's far harder to detect. A bane of the computer science professor's life!
What is striking about this news item, and the survey, is that there is a complete absence of facts about how prevalent essay mills are, either during admissions or coursework assessment. The study did not attempt to find out the facts, rather it asked academics to report their opinions. What we learn from this is not that essay mills are a widespread problem, but rather that academics who chose to reply to this survey (it is clearly stated to be self-selecting) tend to think that essay mills are a problem. In itself, that's a pretty meaningless conclusion. What we also learn is that academics who think that this is a problem are prepared to make all sorts of unsubstantiated assertions about what would happen if things were different: again no actual study giving evidence for it, just a lot of opinions from a self-selected group that probably has a systematic bias. As a sociological study of how academics are not immune to cognitive bias, this is interesting. As a study of whether essay mills are actually a problem, and if they are, why they exist and what might be done about it, this survey (and article) seems to be no use at all.
In my previous comments (#7 above) I should have been clearer: I am referring to the THE survey, from which most of the statistics and all of the quotes seem to be drawn. I make no comment on the validity of the Newton-Awdry, which I have not seen. The article makes almost no use of the published paper, and does not even include a reference to it. Why not cite the actual published results? Why not include a more detailed analysis of what the (presumably) peer reviewed paper says? The only views from the published authors seem to run counter to the views suggested by the respondents to the THE survey - so why not present the more considered, informed views more prominently, rather than the opinions. I am not saying essay mills are not a problem: I am saying this article is little better than clickbait, and THE, of all places, ought to have done better.
Another extreme opinion in what it should be known by now as the Age of Extremes. Not surprising at all.
I would add that a Working Group of the Council of Europe’s ETINED (Ethics in Education) Platform, of which Professor Newton and I are members, met in Strasbourg in February to start work on internationally-agreed (50 member states) mechanisms for addressing this and related issues. The Group will shortly issue a questionnaire to all member states. This will include obtaining official responses to questions such as what laws currently exist, whether and how the contract cheating companies should be put out of business and how students who use their services should be dealt with. This is of course part of a much larger exercise in promoting ethical behaviour in higher education. I hope that in the UK jurisdictions we shall obtain responses which reflect academic concerns. Dennis Farrington
It is sad and misguided to think that using an essay mill company to produced your student work is in any way, a leaning opportunity for students? What it is amounts to is blatant fraud and cheating. The work assessed and perhaps the overall degree itself, which the student is then ultimately awarded, has not been due to that person's own efforts or capability. If this student is studying (?) medicine, law, accountancy, engineering etc. then the consequences of this person graduating into a professional position is deeply concerning and could lead to disastrous situations some of which could be life threatening. Cheating and fraud should not be ignored, tolerated or accepted as part of university life and measures should be put in place across all FE and HE to clearly state this.
“I chair my department’s academic misconduct panel and think contract cheating is extremely difficult to catch” – UK senior academic It isn't hard at all: you need to call in a limited and random number of students shortly after the submission deadline and ask them to write a summary of their work. This will expose those who wrote it themselves and those bought it in. The reality is that no-one wants to clamp down on essay mills as many universities rely so heavily on international student fees. If you want to punish students then put on their transcription that they got 0% in a module because they were caught cheating.
I should like to know who is writing these ghost-written essays. Another THE story (linked to this one) tells us that the impostors are adjunct professors trying to make ends meet. The story states (whether truly or not I cannot say) that the pay for writing fraudulent essays is lucrative, and the net sum (for 3-6 hours work per work) can surpass that of many tenured Faculty. Assuming this is true, there seem to be two options (and they are not mutually exlusive): 1) Increase the pay of adjunct faculty so there is no incentive (or less incentive) to go rogue. 2) Pass legislation to make it easier to find out who the ghost writers are (not just the companies, but the writers they hire) and go after them with the full force of the law. A combination of carrot and stick just might solve the problem.
When there is a pattern of justification for lack of integrity in the name of {your favorite social issue here} streaming through academia and society in general, why would we expect our students to think situational integrity is not a reasonable option? In many ways, it seems our institutions of higher learning are modeling this behavior. Not directly, of course, but every time we justify certain public behaviors in the name of activism (or other exceptions that compromise our core values), we are contributing to this problem. This is especially apparent in the realm of political "discourse." A couple of years ago, a young millennial asked me to write a paper for her for one of her master's classes. When I said no, and lectured her about why she shouldn't do that, she said her parents did her work on her online classes when she was an undergrad and that it was no big deal. She said "everybody does it." This girl received her bachelor's with summa cum laude honors. Her situational integrity was not limited to the classroom, however. Nor is that of the students (or professors) who choose to do this. This doesn't end at the classroom door. If academia wants to change this trend (which seems will grow and be harder to track as more and more programs are available online), I believe we need to make integrity a priority not just in higher education, but in all areas of our lives. That being said, I do think if the government is paying for a student's education, cheating could qualify as theft, but I still have a hard time putting that together with education because it feels like academia should somehow be above that. I am unable to set aside my overly-idealized view of the importance of learning and its potential contribution to society. I do think a zero tolerance for plagiarism is an acceptable and necessary policy for any HE institution. I also think it would be challenging to narrow the scope of a law that criminalizes writing mills in a way that does not infringe on the free speech realm. To that end, if we move in that direction, we just need to make sure we do it with our eyes open. The long and short of it is that I think criminalizing it at this point is just giving Tylenol for a fever when the sickness causing the fever remains unaddressed. I believe we should focus on restoring the value of integrity in our world, starting from preschool-level curriculum and led by by academia. Situational integrity will never be integrity.
There are 3 factors that have led to the rise of so called essay mills, from what I have observed from discussing with the faculty members/academia: 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 profession - 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. Combined this, most students, bar wealthy or upper middle class students, are increasingly having to combined 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. B – 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 job on the side. 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 on 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 by proactively or too readily helping out students (often but always, wealthy foreign students in particular with deep pockets) in assisting with 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 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 top 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 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 increased uncertainty with no end in sight of securing tenureship/full time faculty/assistant professor roles. They say if university and colleges have no shame using the PhD candidates/post docs to manage their teaching sweatshop while at the same time have no qualms to increase ever more tuition fees, they should have no shame for the after effect 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 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.


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