A recent investigation into plagiarism in higher education by the Quality Assurance Agency found hundreds of companies are regularly producing papers for students to pass off as their own.
And only last year, an advertising campaign saw posters for an essay mill prominently placed around the London Underground – particularly at tube stops near university campuses.
Often involving students paying hundreds of pounds for written-to-order papers, this behaviour became known as “contract cheating” after research I published in 2006. It remains one of the major challenges in preserving academic integrity across higher education.
This is why the university standards watchdog has issued new government backed guidance to help address the issue. The new guidelines urge universities to ban essay mills from advertising on campus and block their websites, which the universities minister Jo Johnson has said will help prevent “unacceptable and pernicious” cheating at universities.
While some of these services blatantly advertise that they will complete work for students, the majority do not position themselves as contract cheating sites. Instead, they promote themselves using terms such as “academic writing services”, or say they will provide “original model answers” to students.
These services are commonly referred to as “essay mills” but do not restrict themselves to just writing essays. An enterprising student could pay to have a set of presentation slides completed for them, along with speaker notes. A student in my academic discipline, computer science, could even hire a third party to optimise a database.
A global issue
But this isn’t just something that happens in the UK. As my own research shows, contract cheating is an international problem.
Recently in Australia, the records of one essay mill, MyMaster, were accessed by the media. The records showed that around 1,000 students from 16 universities paid to have work done for them. This included having assessments written for them and examinations taken on their behalf.
My research across southeastern Europe has also shown that contract cheating is not reserved to the English speaking world either. Students there have reported seeing adverts for essay mills on social media and pinned to noticeboards around campus.
For the sector to really demonstrate resilience against contract cheating, national interventions are necessary. These are now beginning to emerge, particularly in the form of guidelines from sector bodies designed to assure the quality of courses.
Like the UK, the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency in Australia has also recently provided guidelines on contract cheating for universities.
The University Grants Commission in India has also issued a public notice providing draft guidance on academic integrity. This includes a zero tolerance approach to plagiarism in some key subjects.
But despite these steps forward in a few countries, issuing national level guidance does not yet seem to be on the agenda for most. Ongoing research looking at around 200 countries and the guidance they offer on contract cheating and academic integrity suggests that very few have useful guidelines.
This is something that needs to change. Because it is only by working across local, national and global levels that universities can successfully ensure the value of academic awards.
A growing problem
I have worked as a researcher in the field of plagiarism, student cheating and academic integrity since 2000. And the issue of contract cheating remains at the forefront of everything that I do.
Over the years, I have seen this issue grow. From focus groups I’ve conducted, I know that some students consider access to hired essay writers as being just a standard part of university life. I’ve even experienced students admitting to writing essays for their peers.
But I have also seen how changes in the way students are assessed and tested can make a difference in this area. Rather than a majority of marks hinging on one essay, I have experienced first hand how a more continuous form of assessment can better help students to develop a rounded set of skills – which ultimately makes them more ready for their subsequent employment.
Despite this, contract cheating services continue to be visible. And teaching interventions are not able to keep pace with the wider ways in which students can commit academic misconduct.
Every indication suggests that today’s students are aware of the service essay mills claim to provide. With the financial pressures of university seeing many students having to fund themselves with part-time employment, the essay mills may find themselves with yet more customers.