New guide bids to combat the use of essay mills

The QAA hopes that its new publication will aid higher education providers in tackling the apparently growing problem of students buying in work to pass off as their own

New guidance has been published to advise higher education providers looking to tackle the use of essay mills, from which students buy work to pass off as their own.

‘Contracting to Cheat: How to Address Essay Mills and Contract Cheating’, launched today (June 18) by the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA), is the result of consultation with experts and students from across the sector.

While it is impossible to say with certainty just how many UK students have taken advantage of essay mills, reports from Swansea University and Channel 4 News suggest their use is on the rise.

Underlining the significance of the problem, Channel 4’s research found that universities detect fewer than one per cent of bought-in essays.

Still, insists the QAA, there are plenty of steps that institutions can take to help mitigate the problem, including:

  • Identifying a strategic lead to undertake staff training and institutional coordination, the better to improve detection of essay mill use
  • While assessment design can help reduce opportunities to cheat, no assessment should ever be thought cheat-proof
  • Technology to detect essay mill usage is most effective when utilised by staff with knowledge of the student
  • Essay mill marketing seeks to exploit students who are feeling vulnerable or anxious, particularly during the Covid-19 pandemic; effective institutional and peer support can help
  • Staff and students should have awareness of – and easy access to – procedures for reporting suspicions of academic misconduct

“The essay mill industry has become increasingly sophisticated,” said Douglas Blackstock, QAA CEO.

“Students at every university or college in the UK will be targeted by them. In developing this guidance we’ve been encouraged by the many examples of innovation and effective practice in place to combat academic misconduct.”

Dr Robin Crockett, the strategic lead on contract-cheating at the University of Northampton, uses stylometry – the statistical analysis of writing styles – to assess the likelihood that students are not submitting their own work. The punishments can be severe.

“We reserve the right to investigate suspected contract-cheating at whatever point evidence comes to light, including after graduation, and in that eventuality rescind awards if contract-cheating is judged to have occurred,” he said.

Ideally, of course, the deception will have been noticed earlier.

“It’s important to detect contract-cheating sooner rather than later, and get students back into studying with integrity before cheating becomes a habit,” added Crockett.

“Once a student is on a database somewhere as having commissioned an assignment, that information is potentially available to extortioners and blackmailers forever.”


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