Minister demands stiff penalties for student cheats

The Universities and Science Minister Jo Johnson last Tuesday demanded tough new penalties for university students who use essay mills – websites that provide custom written essays – and called on university and student bodies to do more to address the growth of such services.

The minister is calling for guidance aimed at universities that would include the introduction of tough new penalties for those who make use of essay mills to fulfil assignments for their degree, as well as better education for students about the potentially significant negative impacts on their future career if they are caught cheating.

The Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education, or QAA, has also been told to take action against the online advertising of these services and to work with international agencies to deal with this problem.

The minister said: “This form of cheating is unacceptable and every university should have strong policies and sanctions in place to detect and deal with it.

“Essay mill websites threaten to undermine the high-quality reputation of a UK degree so it is vital that the sector works together to address this in a consistent and robust way.”

However, Universities UK, the vice-chancellors' body, said universities are already taking cheating by students “extremely seriously” and already have “severe penalties” in place.

The spread of essay mill websites was uncovered in a QAA report, commissioned by the government, which was published last August.

The report, Plagiarism in Higher Education – Custom essay writing services: an exploration and next steps for the UK higher education sector, concluded that essay mills are a “growing threat to UK higher education”.

It found that the websites often advertise their services to students for a fee and many promote “plagiarism-free guarantees”, or essays tested against plagiarism detection software.

Further work by the QAA has confirmed that there are now more than 100 essay mill websites currently in operation.

Prices charged by custom written essay sites vary depending on the complexity of essay and tightness of deadline. They can range from £15 (US$18) for a 3,000-word masters dissertation proposal with no deadline to as high as £6,750 (US$8,435) for a 100,000-word English literature PhD dissertation provided within seven days.

Some sites tailor their prices to the urgency of deadlines and-or degree level or even degree classification required.

The services of one provider Custom Essay Writer, cited in the QAA report, when checked in August last year, included provision of 3,000-word degree or masters essays within as little as three hours.

Another provider cited, British Essay Writers, also checked in August last year, was offering per page prices for work at three different standards: 2:2, 2:1 and first class.

Ian Kimber, the QAA’s director of universities, quality enhancement and standards, said: “Essay mills are a major challenge for universities and colleges because, unlike other forms of cheating, the practice is notoriously difficult to detect.”

He said the QAA will continue work with the government and sector colleagues in addressing an issue that is “potentially damaging to students and the reputation of UK higher education”.

Sector guidance on plagiarism has not been updated for some time. It is currently left to individual institutions to develop their own plagiarism policies in accordance with the requirements and indicators of sound practice set out in the UK Quality Code for Higher Education published by QAA.

Johnson has told the QAA, Universities UK and the National Union of Students to work together to draw up the new guidance, which is expected to be made available for the beginning of the 2017-18 teaching year.

However, Dame Julia Goodfellow, president of Universities UK, said universities already take plagiarism and cheating extremely seriously and have “severe penalties for students found to be submitting work that is not their own”.

She said: “Submitting work written by someone else is cheating and devalues the efforts of students who work hard to achieve their degrees. Such academic misconduct is a breach of an institution's disciplinary regulations and can result in students, in serious cases, being expelled from the university.”

But she also said that with information now so readily available online, it has become increasingly important to engage with students from day one to underline the implications of cheating and how it can be avoided.

She said: “The higher education sector has already done a lot of work in this area and universities have become more experienced in detecting and dealing with such forms of cheating.”

Legislative approaches

The 2016 QAA report recommended that universities, colleges and sector organisations should work in partnership to tackle custom essay writing services; that the possibility of legislative approaches should be investigated; and that companies selling advertising space should reject approaches by sites selling custom essays, and search engines should limit access to these sites.

The report said the custom essay writing market has been boosted by technological advances, as the internet allows easy access to these services, along with rapid ordering, payment and delivery.
The QAA report said essay writing services lay great store by the bespoke, ‘plagiarism-free’, confidential nature of the service, while simultaneously issuing disclaimers warning against their products being used for plagiarism.

It said some companies assert that the work produced amounts to a model essay for use as a learning aid (providing guidance and assistance with assignments), and not to be submitted by students as their own work. However, such recommendations are not readily evident, hidden away in what is effectively small print.

The report noted that some countries, such as New Zealand, have made it illegal to advertise or provide third-party assistance to cheat, including via the provision of services that complete an assignment or any other work that a student is required to complete.

In the United States, around one in three states have some form of law addressing essay mills, either prohibiting the preparation or distribution of papers or prohibiting the sale of papers or advertising of such services, the report said.

By contrast, in Australia, although considerable attention was paid to cheating, particularly by the higher education regulator, the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency, there was no legislation governing custom essay writing services.