Over the past few years, there has been an insidious and rapid rise in contract cheating companies.
These essay mills prey on student anxiety to charge hundreds or thousands of pounds to supply ghostwritten essays. A single assignment can start from more than £100, while a dissertation can set students back as much as £7,000.
A series of recent studies have highlighted that the problem is getting worse, and concern is mounting within the higher education sector and wider public about their malign prevalence. Last month, Philip Newton at Swansea University’s medical school calculated that as many as one in seven students worldwide has paid for assignments and up to 31 million students have used essay mill services.
In the UK alone, an investigation by the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) has found that hundreds of contract cheating companies are currently in operation and has estimated that about 17,000 students have been caught using their services.
Although this is an international problem, pressure is now mounting on the UK government and universities to take action. A petition to Parliament, which has already attracted more than 4,000 signatures, has warned that essay mill companies undermine the high standards of universities and are unfair to honest students.
The petition calls on ministers to follow the lead of the governments of the Republic of Ireland and New Zealand in announcing a new law that would make it illegal to provide or advertise contract cheating services.
At UCL, we are firmly supporting this petition on the grounds of fairness. In a highly competitive world, students need to be assured that they are being assessed fairly and recognised for their own hard work and intellectual endeavour. UCL students are highly sought-after by employers for their knowledge, critical analysis, problem solving, communications and project management skills. If a student is cheating, they are not doing the work they need to develop those characteristics of a UCL graduate that are so valued. It devalues both the worth of a degree and the skills that students develop during their time at university.
Another key point is one of social justice. Our university was built to open up higher education and to change the way that we create and share knowledge. At a time when universities are making real progress towards admitting more students from disadvantaged backgrounds, it is counter-productive to allow essay mills to run rampant.
Only those students with the deepest pockets can afford to pay hundreds or thousands of pounds for someone else to write their essays for them – whether through contract cheating services or personal contacts.
Concerns about the difficulties of combating essay mills could also drive some universities to return to unseen written exams, lowering the diversity of assessment. This, in turn, can disadvantage students who don’t always perform their best under traditional exam conditions. Assessment diversity has been shown to improve engagement and development of a broader skill set and student outcomes.
Universities themselves must also take action to improve assessment processes to make it harder for essay mills to operate. The QAA – which is working closely with the Department for Education, the National Union of Students, Universities UK and other experts – has published useful guidance for universities and colleges on identifying and tackling contract cheating.
At UCL, we have overhauled our academic regulations to ensure fairness and maintain academic standards, and it goes without saying that we strictly forbid the use of ghostwriting agencies. Any member of our community who makes use of these services is liable for an academic penalty, and we use a sophisticated detection system (Turnitin) to scan work for evidence of plagiarism.
It is essential that the UK government introduce legislation to prevent essay mill companies from advertising their services in public places and campuses.
Any legislation would have to be targeted at the essay mills themselves, and not criminalise students or legitimate educational services. The move would send a message that the government values the academic integrity of a degree, and would ensure continued trust and confidence in the UK’s world-leading higher education sector.
Anthony Smith is vice-provost (education and student affairs) at UCL.