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QAA publishes new guidance to help tackle the use of essay mills

Date: June 18 - 2020

QAA has today published new guidance for UK higher education providers to help them protect academic integrity and combat the use of essay mills in their institutions.

Essay mills are commercial entities that make money by encouraging students to cheat. While some are based in the UK, they are a global phenomenon impacting on higher education systems and providers around the world. Their use has the potential to damage the reputation of UK higher education. Typically, they will charge a student to write their assessment, which the student will then submit as their own work. They will often use sophisticated marketing techniques, and some will resort to blackmail or extortion once students have used their services. Research indicates their use by students has increased in recent years (such as published by Swansea University and Channel 4).

Contracting to Cheat: How to Address Essay Mills and Contract Cheating, which is published with the support of governments across the UK, shows that many UK higher education institutions have designed effective institutional strategies and academic integrity practices to educate staff, support students, reduce opportunities to cheat and detect academic misconduct. However, more needs to be done.

Key findings and recommendations are:

  • Identifying a strategic lead with responsibility for staff training and institutional coordination can help improve detection of essay mill use.
  • Assessment design can help reduce opportunities to cheat, but no assessment should ever be considered cheat proof.
  • Technology can help detect the use of essay mills, but is most effective when used by experienced staff with knowledge of the student.
  • Essay mill marketing seeks to exploit students who are feeling vulnerable or anxious, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic. Effective institutional and peer support can help.
  • Staff and students should be aware of, or be able to easily access, information and procedures to follow to report a suspicion of academic misconduct.

The guidance has been written following extensive consultation with universities, colleges, expert academics and students from across the UK. It updates earlier guidance with new advice, intelligence and good practice in response to the ever-evolving threat of essay mills.

Douglas Blackstock, QAA CEO, said: 'The essay mill industry has become increasingly sophisticated, and exists to make money by encouraging students to cheat. Students at every university or college in the UK will be targeted by them. In developing this guidance we’ve been encouraged by the many examples of innovation and effective practice in place to combat academic misconduct. A sector-wide response, working with governments and regulators, can help us get on the front foot in putting an end to the contract cheating industry'.

Universities Minister Michelle Donelan said: 'This is a difficult time for students, and those who are feeling particularly worried about their studies could be more vulnerable to essay mills marketing right now. It is abhorrent for these companies to take advantage of students in this situation and profit from anxiety during a global pandemic.

'I know universities are working hard to respond to coronavirus, to continue delivering their courses and supporting students. I hope this guidance, along with innovations in technology, will help them protect the integrity of our world-leading higher education and prevent students turning to contract cheating'.

Richard Lochhead, Scotland’s Minister for Further Education, Higher Education and Science said: 'Protecting the integrity of our higher education sector is vital and we must be vigilant in cracking down on those who actively engage in academic misconduct. I welcome the new guidance published by QAA which will help our institutions combat the use of essay mills, particularly in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic'.

Kirsty Williams, Wales’ Minister for Education said: 'I welcome the publication of this new guidance from QAA to help our higher education sector combat the pernicious effects of contract cheating and essay mills. In Wales and across the UK we pride ourselves on the integrity of our higher education institutions, and we cannot allow that to be undermined by predatory essay mill companies which often exploit the most vulnerable students.

I hope that universities in Wales consider this guidance carefully and take further steps, in partnership with HEFCW and students’ unions, to reduce the opportunities and incentives for students to cheat, particularly during the challenging circumstances that have been created by Covid-19'.

Related information

In March, we published a Blog entitled Innovative Steps in Tackling Contract Cheating at the University of Northampton, written by Dr Robin Crockett, Reader in Data Analysis and University Lead on Contract-Cheating at the University of Northampton.

More about our work in this area, including the Academic Integrity Advisory Group and all publications and guidance, can be found in the Academic Integrity section of our website.