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8 July 2020

Creating a hostile environment: How to combat essay mills


Gareth Crossman
Head of Policy and Communications


In late 2017, when QAA first published guidance for the higher education sector helping them to combat essay mills, we didn’t expect to be publishing a new edition less than three years later. Of course, the world of higher education has changed immensely in recent months, and that’s been reflected in the new guidance. But the decision to rewrite had been made well before the word ‘coronavirus’ had any common usage outside the world of virology. And while UK governments presently have many demands on their time, the fact that the guidance was endorsed by university and education ministers in England, Wales and Scotland shows that academic misconduct remains an issue of concern across the UK.


We have updated the guidance for two key reasons. Firstly, although for obvious reasons it is impossible to say how many students are using essay mills, research evidence indicates demand - certainly internationally - has increased. It is a serious issue with global impact. Secondly, the feedback we received through our survey indicated that use of essay mills is becoming more normalised, with students having used essay mills before entering higher education. Although we are relying on anecdotal, rather than statistical data, this tallies with the experience of our campaigning work. Our collaboration with the BBC to stop YouTube influencers promoting essay mills, for example, saw marketing clearly pitched at younger GCSE and A level students.


This might sound negative and defeatist, but it is critical that guidance produced by QAA reflects the reality of essay mill use to be effective in combating it. Because of this, a number of key recommendations have been introduced in the new edition.


Firstly, and possibly most importantly, institutions need to take a coordinated strategic approach. In updating the guidance, we carried out a survey of higher education providers across the UK. One of the strongest messages that came out of the survey is that approaches to combatting academic fraud could be more consistent across institutions. To help with this, we recommend that a strategic lead for academic integrity should be appointed, with responsibility for staff training and institutional coordination. Ideally, this should be a formal part of an academic role, although we are also conscious that COVID-19 has had a significant impact on institutional finances.


Linked to this is the importance of experienced staff with training in the detection of academic misconduct. While technology-based tools can help identify suspicion of cheating, Australian research shows that detection rates are improved when cases are managed by staff who have a good understanding and previous experience of institutional processes.


In the previous version of the guidance, we spoke of ‘designing’ cheating out of assessment. There is indeed much that can be done in assessment design to make cheating and the use of essay mills more difficult, for example, by using ‘authentic design' strategies that are more reflective of the ways in which students will actually use their knowledge. Assessment design as part of staff training is a key recommendation in the guidance. However, implying that some courses could be ‘cheat proof’, could potentially lead to complacency.


While the guidance is not written in response to COVID-19, it does reflect the impact of the pandemic. Many essay mills have sophisticated marketing that targets students, often using the social media channels with which they are familiar. We’ve seen examples of advertising that seeks to take advantage of the anxiety and uncertainty students have felt during the pandemic and as a result of being distanced from their academic community. As a consequence, the guidance has increased emphasis on providing students with effective institutional support and access to peer networks.


Essay mills are not going away. So long as there is money to be made by encouraging students to cheat, they will continue to target higher education. Some of their practices are becoming increasingly sinister and exploitative, with evidence of students being blackmailed by essay mill companies threatening to tell their institution they have cheated.


This guidance alone won’t stop essay mills, but it will help by making it more difficult to cheat, and disincentivise students from cheating by increasing the prospects of detection. We believe the way to defeat essay mills is to remove the financial incentive by creating a hostile environment for operation. We hope to persuade the government to criminalise essay mills and are encouraged by the fact that, shortly after the guidance was published, the Westminster Government’s response to a parliamentary question from the Liberal Democrat Peer Lord Storey indicated an increased willingness to look at the introduction of legislation. We will continue our campaign to persuade social media platforms like PayPal, Google and YouTube not to allow essay mill advertising. We are also working with quality assurance agencies internationally to identify and raise awareness of global trends in essay mill activity.


So, there is much to be positive about. In our survey of higher education providers, we identified areas of good practice from institutions across the UK, such as the development of online skills and support modules for students, institutions setting up academic integrity forums, assessment design in staff training and designing investigation processes to improve detection rates. This shows how seriously the sector is taking the threat essay mills pose. The harder essay mill operation becomes, and the less they profit, the less incentive they have to continue.