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13 September 2021

Tackling contract cheating at the root – where next in the battle against essay mills?


Gareth Crossman

Head of Policy and Communications, QAA

As the long-fought campaign for the introduction of legislation outlawing essay mills looks set to gain government support in Westminster, QAA’s Head of Policy and Communications, Gareth Crossman, looks at how the sector tackles the issue of contract cheating going forward, looking beyond legislation to widespread culture change.

In the ideal world that we all aspire to, arguments for policy change should be accompanied by a wealth of quantitative and qualitative data and evidence. So it is admittedly frustrating that when campaigning for legislation to criminalise essay mills, QAA can’t give specific answers to such simple questions as ‘So how many students actually use them?’ There is research that suggests the figure might be around 17% internationally, although this must be partly speculative. We also know anecdotally that students who use essay mills are being blackmailed, we just don’t know how many.

Here’s a statistic that we can use. This is a demand led industry. Essay mills only exist to make money. The essay mill comparison site (yes, there are essay mill comparison sites) UK Top Writers currently lists 993 separate sites. That number has increased by over 100 during the last academic year. So while we may not know how many students are using essay mills, we do know there are a lot to choose from, all presumably turning a profit.

So, we need to follow the lead of Australia and Ireland and introduce legislation to outlaw essay mills. And there are positive signs that this may soon be happening. The Westminster Government has indicated that it will look positively at a Private Member’s Bill introduced by the Liberal Democrat Peer, Lord Storey, a long-time campaigner for criminalisation. The former Universities Minister, Chris Skidmore MP, has also been active in generating support across all parties for legislation, and there are positive indications that the devolved governments might also be interested in supporting a UK-wide approach.

Cause for optimism then. But even if legislation were introduced in Parliament straight away, it would still take time to be passed and then brought into force. And while this would hopefully put UK essay mills out of business and make it easier to block sites of those that operate overseas, it can only ever be part of a solution. It will send a clear signal to students that using essay mills means engaging with a criminal entity but would have little impact, for example, on the practice increasingly known as ‘chegging’. Chegging, named in tribute to the online resource company Chegg, sees students using tuition services in real time during online examinations, and would be very difficult to include within the scope of criminal legislation.

This means that targeting individual manifestations of academic misconduct can feel a bit Whac-a-mole at times. That’s why it’s so important that the sector gets on the collective front foot, by taking proactive action to champion academic integrity.

There are now 174 signatories to QAA’s Academic Integrity Charter, including every University in Wales, and we are aiming to get every HEI in the UK to show its commitment to the principles in the Charter by signing. The UK Academic Integrity Advisory Group, hosted by QAA, is also looking at other areas of sector collaboration, such as how institutions can approach sharing information about academic misconduct records of their students who change provider. Meanwhile, student activism, typified by the excellent work of the Academic Integrity Collective, is helping ensure students are made aware and finding support.

This sort of collaboration is essential as essay mills are becoming increasingly sophisticated in their operation. Earlier this year, QAA was contacted by the Australian higher education regulator, TEQSA, who become aware that essay mills were hacking into and embedding themselves into institutional websites. This means students might access the sites thinking that they were endorsed or approved by their institutions. Working with Jisc, we have since produced joint guidance on cyber security to help HEIs reduce the risk of falling victim to similar practices. What is particularly worrying about this is not only the level of sophistication, but also the potential consequences. Some essay mills not only make money by selling their services, but they also use the personal and financial details of students for criminal activity. A student who thinks that they are using a service endorsed by their university or college is less likely to be cautious about handing over their information.

So, the positives arising from apparent political will to take action, from increasing sector collaboration, and from student activism needs to be coupled with a significant rider. We are a very long way from winning the war. Essay mills are sophisticated, unscrupulous and target students using the channels and platforms they prefer. Ending their existence would be a huge, perhaps impossible, challenge. Making their operation so difficult that they cease making a profit is, however, entirely achievable. This must be the focus of the sector’s response.

QAA’s latest advice on developing effective approaches to academic misconduct is available to QAA Members via our Membership Resources Site. We also recently published a collection of case studies detailing QAA members’ approaches to academic misconduct. To sign-up to use the site, members can complete our simple  registration form.