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UON expert endorses move to make essay cheating illegal

Date 11.02.2021

This week, a bill, aimed at tackling the issue of students cheating their way to a degree, was introduced in Parliament.

Contract cheating involves students commissioning third parties to write their assignments for them. There are hundreds of companies and individuals in the UK and abroad offering writing services – and thousands of students are believed to be submitting these essays as their own work.

The University of Northampton’s University Academic Integrity Officer, Robin Crockett, was one of the experts consulted by Chris Skidmore MP, who brought the bill to the House of Commons.

Here, Robin provides his thoughts on the bill and the ways in which students might be unwittingly opening themselves up to being exploited.

Yesterday (Wednesday 10 February), MP and former Minister of State for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation, Chris Skidmore, introduced his Essay Mills (Prohibition) Bill in the House of Commons in the UK Parliament. As he stated in his speech, “To the minister listening, I would welcome a meeting to discuss how to take these proposals and legislation forward, together with the members, students and academic experts I have assembled for this task” and his bill has the support of all the major UK political parties.

A few days previously, along with colleagues from the QAA Academic Integrity Advisory and Midlands Integrity Groups, Students’ Union representatives and other interested and involved parties, I was invited to advise him with regard to the issues that we in the Higher Education sector are experiencing due to the – currently – entirely legal activities of these businesses in the UK. Some other countries such as Australia, New Zealand and the Republic of Ireland have legislated and, whilst making essay mills illegal in the UK won’t solve the problem, it will clearly flag the activities of such businesses as being unacceptable, and will enable universities to say to their students ‘Don’t do that, it’s illegal’.

It’s not a case of ‘None of my students would do that’: essay mills can be highly disingenuous in their advertising and play on students’ worries and insecurities, particularly this last several months during the COVID emergency. For an example of playing on students’ COVID anxieties, see this website (and wait for the special-offer pop-up). For an example of how such businesses sell themselves to students by trying to reassure students that buying essays isn’t cheating, see this website. Both these assignment providers have disclaimers that students shouldn’t submit the assignments they buy, but those are in much smaller, less distinct print and harder to find than the ‘We’re the best’ and ‘It’s okay to buy from us’ statements tempting students to become customers.

Over the past several years, I’ve witnessed the interlinked trends of proliferating essay mills and decreasing prices. The COVID emergency has certainly accelerated the decrease in prices, often in the form of now almost year-long special offers, and it almost certainly hasn’t resulted in a decrease in essay mills vying for the trade. Also, over that same period, I’ve seen contract-cheating increasingly normalised by websites such as TrustPilot rating essay mills, apparently classifying them as educational institutions. There’s even a comparison website which has logged a 5-6 per cent increase in reviewed essay mills over the past year or so, and also lists the top cities for buying assignments.

Given this worrying state of affairs, the bill is a very welcome development which we all need to support.