University VCs call for an end to “essay mills”

FORTY-SIX UNIVERSITY Vice-Chancellors or heads of higher education institutions have signed a letter to the Education Secretary about a growing concern over essay-writing companies that are simply known as “essay mills”. These companies produce essays for students in exchange for money, which students then pass off as their own. The letter calls for the companies to be banned altogether, as their actions remain legal in the UK, despite them being seen by many as encouraging a form of plagiarism.

This action is easily understood when held alongside a recent study from Swansea University that estimates one in seven recent graduates cheated or paid someone else to produce their work for them. There is already a petition in place to force this issue into parliament.

The letter was signed by leaders of many universities – including the University of York, Sheffield Hallam, Leeds Trinity and York St John in Yorkshire. The aim of this united action is to ensure that legislative action is taken to try and prevent “contract cheating”. In addition, the various signatories call on the Education Secretary to support the Quality and Assurance Agency (QAA) as well as the Office for Students (OFS) in their endeavours to stop “essay mills”.

The letter says that these false essays “undermine diligent students” as students who cheat have been receiving results for work they falsely claim to have created. Submission of a false essay is heavily penalised at universities and can result in the expulsion of the offending student.

Swansea University released a study that surveyed 54 000 students. From that collection, 15.7 per cent had admitted to cheating since 2014. The average in the last 40 years was of 3.5 per cent. Professor Phil Newton, who directed the study, was looking at evidence from 1978 to help gather evidence and data for the project. With the figures they unveiled, they estimate 31 million students worldwide could be paying other people to do their work for them.

Newton warned that “the UK risks becoming a country where essay-mills find it easy to do business”. He went further to say that the results of his research demonstrated a “need for legislation to tackle essay mills, alongside improvements in the way students are assessed and awareness-raising of the fundamentals of academic integrity. We need to utilise assessment methods that promote learning and at the same time reduce the likelihood that contract cheating can happen”.

This is not the first time Newton has supported a move for the law to be involved in the issue. In a project with Professor Michael Draper of the Hillary Rodham Clinton School of Law at Swansea University, the two men stated that the current laws on essay mills would not be effective in tackling the issue they present.

The University Minister Sam Gyimah has said that the government is “bearing down” on the issue, and that legislative action was not an impossibility. However, there seems to be an attitude of tackling the issue through other means as yet. The fact that there is no current legislation must be a frustration for the QAA, which believes that essay mills support a form of plagiarism. The OFS Chief Executive Nicola Dandridge says that these companies “turn cheating into an industry”.

Procuring a false essay is not difficult. There are over 100 websites providing this dubious service across the internet. They advertise guaranteed high grades on essays that are also guaranteed to be free from plagiarism.

Students can order their essay online and are charged a price dependent upon the due date, the length and the subject of their essay. Their shadowy value was proven in March, after the Advertising Standards Agency decided that one essay mill would no longer be allowed to advertise after they did not clarify that any papers they produced should not be submitted by students as original work of the students. Essay writing companies are banned in 17 states in the USA, as well as in Ireland, Australia and New Zealand.

The petition has reached nearly 5000 signatures – at 10 000 Parliament will have to respond to it, while at 100 000 they would have to debate it in the chamber. The petition reaches expiry to attain the minimum number of signatures in February of 2019.