Back in January I wrote about the need to tackle the essay mill industry. Whilst universities have clear regulatory frameworks designed to prevent plagiarism and other forms of cheating and deploy software such as Turnitin the challenge remains.
The QAA produced this report in 2016 on the growing threat to UK higher education from essay mills. The report argued for a multi-faceted approach that builds on published research and the steps that universities and colleges are already taking to promote good academic practice by students, to ‘design out’ opportunities for plagiarism in their assessments and to detect and penalise academic misconduct. It also argued that legislation should be explored to make it an offence to provide or advertise cheating services such as those provided by these essay cheat companies.
Proposals to tackle essay mills did not make into the Higher Education and Research Act and therefore legislation appears to be off the agenda . Banning such companies may not be a realistic possibility, but we do need to tackle these operations which somehow have managed to retain a veneer of credibility despite being fundamentally dedicated to helping students cheat.
Trouble at mill
Following its 2016 investigation, universities minister Jo Johnson asked QAA to work on (non-legislative) measures to combat contract cheating and the Agency has now produced some new guidance for the sector.
The guidance, just published, recommends:
- clear information for students on the risks of cheating, including academic misconduct being reported to relevant professional bodies
- support for students to develop independent study skills, including academic writing
- using a range of assessment methods to limit opportunities for cheating
- blocking of essay mill sites and action against essay mill advertising on campus
- smarter detection,including new software and greater familiarity with students’ personal styles and capabilities
- appropriate support for whistle blowing – to protect accuser as well as accused
- student involvement on academic misconduct policies and panels.
The press release for the new guidance quotes Jo Johnson:
This form of cheating is unacceptable and pernicious. It not only undermines standards in our world-class universities, but devalues the hard-earned qualifications of those who don’t cheat and can even, when it leads to graduates practising with inadequate professional skills, endanger the lives of others.
QAA is also asking universities and colleges to record incidents of this and other kinds of cheating, to help build a clearer picture of the scale of the problem in UK higher education. This should be helpful in identifying further action which may be required. The press release also notes that QAA is working on guidance for students and that NUS is running a similar campaign to combat contract cheating with students.
The Telegraph’s (embargo-ignoring?) story on this focuses very much on the particularly concerning aspect of some academic staff collaborating with the essay mill providers by taking money to provide essays to students. As the Chief Executive of the QAA comments
“These ‘essay mill’ companies prey on vulnerable academics as well as students,” said Douglas Blackstock, chief executive of the QAA.
“These are hard-pressed research assistants or lecturers, topping up their earnings. Many companies claim they get genuine academics to write their material. To make their businesses viable, they need to attract people who know enough about the subject.
“If a university was to find a member of staff was writing an essay for [their students] we would think that is a serious issue.”
It would be an extremely serious issue indeed. Both for the member of staff concerned and the university itself.
Thomas Lancaster, an associate dean at Staffordshire University and an expert in this area, is reported in the Guardian as saying that the new guidance was a move in the right direction but that to truly tackle the problem a change in the law was needed.
Copying down under
In an interesting parallel Australia’s higher education watchdog has also unveiled new guidelines to tackle the same issues. The Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency’s guidelines highlight best practice, which includes barring students’ from commercial cheat sites while on campus, and sending them a counter-message when they try to access the sites:
“They should receive a message such as: ‘This site has been blocked because it is not a legitimate learning service’, along with a link to the higher education provider’s academic integrity resources,” the document said.
It also recommends compulsory academic integrity training for students, and professional development for staff to help them identify contract cheating.
It says contract cheating is difficult to detect because it cannot be picked up through text-matching software like standard plagiarism.
Higher education providers are also being urged to use the data they collect to identify contract cheating “hot spots” in faculties, courses and among certain assessments.
This would ensure that “resources can be allocated in areas most prone to contract cheating”.
The regulator also recommended that universities consider publishing de-identified data about cheating investigations, which could be available to students and staff on its intranet.
Education for students and staff, prevention, detection and regulation are therefore the key pillars of both QAA’s and TEQSA’s approaches.
This is welcome news indeed. Let us hope that it has an impact. However, until the essay mill companies start to go out of business then plagiarism will still be a major problem for universities.
Students are being warned that using quick-fix “essay mill” websites puts them at risk of being scammed out of hundreds of pounds, as well as failing their degree if they are caught cheating.
Experts have warned of a spike in websites taking students’ money in exchange for bespoke essays and then disappearing, not delivering work on time, or providing poor quality papers. The National Union of Students (NUS) said they prey on the vulnerabilities and anxieties of students to make money.
There are more than 100 essay-mill websites in operation in the UK, according to a report from the independent university regulator, the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA). They offer written-to-order essays, charging varying amounts from hundreds to thousands of pounds based on deadline, topic and length.
Sorana Vieru, the NUS vice-president for higher education, said they homed in on “students’ fears that their academic English and their referencing may not be good enough”. She added: “We would urge those who are struggling to seek support through their unions and universities rather than looking to a quick fix, and be aware that using these websites could cost not only money but jeopardise their qualifications.”
The NUS added that it was easy for these sites to “con” students.
Prof Thomas Lancaster, an associate dean at Staffordshire University and one of the UK’s leading experts on cheating, echoed these concerns. “There are horror stories out there about students who have paid for dissertations and essays that haven’t arrived, so they have nothing to hand in,” he said.
Lancaster added: “There are plenty of scams operating in the academic writing space and I’m sure that some people just set up essay writing services with the intention of closing them down without sending an order as soon as the money comes in.”
It comes as hundreds of thousands of students hand in final dissertations and essay projects this month. In the lead up to these deadlines many who have fallen victim to these fake sites have made desperate appeals online.
One student claimed their dissertation was due at the end of the month and the website that had promised to write it had been deactivated. “I had a dissertation purchase and I have lost all my information. The website doesn’t seem to exist and I am on a tough deadline to submit my work by end of this month,” they wrote on an essay scam website.
They added: “The websites are not accessible, neither are the email links they sent going through. I called PayPal, [and] they claim the account still exists. The telephone contact they have as well as what was sent to me as part of their email never goes through. Have these guys rebranded? Or have [I] been banned? Nothing seems to be coming out clear.”
Another student claimed the person they had paid £150 to write a 3,000-word essay for them had disappeared, leaving them with a tight deadline. They asked if any one else could help them, offering £200 but only when the work had been done. “Please contact me ASAP if you think you can help or if you have an offer,” they wrote.
These websites are now in their busiest period, with students handing in final-year projects and dissertations. The Guardian was able to access several dissertation-writing websites, many of which reported seasonal “price surges”. One website, which describes itself as a dissertation-writing service, said a dissertation would cost more this month and offered discounts in June and July. Another global website said it increased prices by 20% in April, but they had now fallen.
British institutions are currently free to set their own plagiarism policies. But the QAA recommended new laws to make it illegal to help students “commit acts of academic dishonesty for financial gain”. They suggested those in breach of this could be punishable with fines of up to £5,000.
Ministers announced a crackdown earlier this year, saying they constituted cheating. But three months on an amendment to the higher education bill to make selling essays illegal did not go through.
The Department for Education was unable to comment due to general election purdah rules. However, they sent a link to a statement released in February demanding universities and students create new sector guidance. They said this was expected to be made available for the beginning of the 2017-18 teaching year.
Simon Bullock of the QAA said: “The QAA is working with universities and student representatives on measures to identify and discourage the use of essay mills.”
Lancaster said students buying essays online were putting themselves in a risky situation as these sites “skirt around the law”. He added that people had “no comeback if what they pay for isn’t delivered or is of poor quality”.
He said he had also heard cases of students purchasing work and being blackmailed by sites. “They have been asked to send more money to avoid having their names handed over to their university.”
A spokesperson for the University of Bristol said: “To avoid any disciplinary procedures or being conned by fake sites, we urge students to seek support from lecturers, personal tutors and wellbeing services if they begin to feel overwhelmed. As a university we work with our students to guide them through the examination period and ensure they leave with the qualifications they have worked so hard towards.”