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2 April 2019

Combatting essay mills and academic misconduct



Gareth Crossman
Head of Policy & Public Affairs, QAA

You don't usually expect university leaders to draw attention to issues that might carry reputational risk for them. So when 45 Vice Chancellors and sector representatives wrote to the Secretary of State for Education last year, asking him to act against essay mills, it was a telling moment. To their credit, the signatories were aware that cheating in higher education is a significant and, it appears, growing problem. A few years ago, they might have been reluctant to draw attention to the possibility of cheating at their institutions.

So how many cheats are there?

This is typically the first question I’m asked when I’m interviewed about essay mills. As cheating isn’t something people usually want to advertise, it’s impossible to say for sure. However, the sheer volume of companies offering to write bespoke essays for students indicates a thriving market.

There’s is a vast range of choice and prices amongst the companies that will write essays for you. What they have in common is that explicitly or implicitly – by stressing how their work is ‘100% plagiarism free’ – they make it clear that you can submit this work as your own. Disclaimers about not doing so and using essays only as ‘model answers’ might give a veneer of respectability. But why pay hundreds, even thousands of pounds for a model essay, when they’re already provided for free by your institution? Unless you intend to submit this work as your own.

This is a global problem for higher education, but it also matters for our wider society. Graduates who have cheated at university or college will enter the workforce without the necessary skills and training. This can also raise public health concerns, as illustrated by a 2016 report by The Times where freedom of information requests to over 60 universities revealed that more than 1,700 nursing students had been caught cheating in the previous three years.

So, what can be done?

The reality is that there is no magic bullet. Essay mill companies are motivated solely by profit, so the best approach is to create a hostile environment for them by making it harder to cheat.

Legislating to criminalise essay mills is certainly an option, and we're currently scoping a number of proposals as to how this might work. Several countries, including New Zealand, have already taken this path. If, however, the aim is to criminalise the essay mills rather than the offending students, there are challenges to overcome in getting the legislation right. For us in the UK, legislation would only be relevant to take action against UK-based companies, rather than the many operating overseas. However, as we are frequently told by institutions, criminalisation would send out a powerful message to students that the use of essay mills is unacceptable.

As well as the essay companies themselves, there have been suggestions that students who cheat should also be criminalised. QAA's position, and that of the Academic Integrity Advisory Group we host, is that students caught cheating can, and should, face sanctions including dismissal from their course or institution. We are clear, however, that criminal law should only be applied to those who make money from academic misconduct.  

Many essay mill companies have highly-effective marketing strategies, reaching students primarily through social media. By targeting these marketing campaigns, we make it more difficult for them to attract customers. In December 2017, QAA wrote to six online platforms, including Google, PayPal and YouTube, telling them that essay mill companies were using paid-for services and asking the platforms to block them from doing so. Working with QAA, the Secretary of State for Education recently made a similar intervention.

Educating students to be aware of the potential consequences of cheating is also key to cutting off demand. As well as facing potential dismissal from their course or institution, we are hearing anecdotal cases of blackmail by essay mill companies which are aware that, once a student has used their services, they are in a vulnerable position.

In 2017, QAA published guidance which advocates a range of measures to educate staff and students, and prevent and detect the use of essay mills. Recommendations include looking at institutional assessment methodologies, regular checkpoints during the assessment process, and using a viva when a student's work differs from what might be expected. I should stress that many institutions already use these and other means to help identify potential academic misconduct. Next generation plagiarism software is also entering the market which should prove more effective in identifying what has been produced by most essay mills.

More broadly, protecting academic integrity is about a great deal more than essay mills. Other forms of cheating, for example, fake certificates or the use of bogus agents to recruit unqualified students, are equally of concern. The Academic Integrity Advisory Group we host brings together academic misconduct experts from across the UK, seeking to take a holistic approach to the protection of academic integrity, wherever it arises. We also need to work more closely with international partners and agencies to address what is a global phenomenon. It's a complex issue, requiring a multi-faceted response. The good news is that the higher education sector is working together to address it.