The government’s Skills and Post-16 Education Bill will criminalise “unscrupulous” so-called ‘essay mills’, intensifying its response to a problem described by a previous universities minister as a “rot that infects the very discipline of learning”.
Ministers introduced the bill to parliament in May, promising it would herald “landmark reforms that will transform post-16 education and training, boost skills and get more people into work”.
The bill intends to bring parity to the further and higher education systems, introduce a lifelong learning entitlement and embolden the Office for Students to set minimum thresholds for quality and standards in post-16 education.
The bill gained the new prohibition clause on 5 October. If passed, the bill would make it a criminal offence to “provide, arrange or advertise these cheating services”, said a statement from the government.
The bill is currently at the report stage, its penultimate step, in the House of Lords, having progressed through the first and second readings and committee stage – it will then enter the Commons for MPs to debate and vote on its final wording.
It is not the first time ministers have sought to address the problem.
The Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) launched new guidance for universities this year after a Channel 4 investigation found that institutions detect fewer than one per cent of bought-in essays. The government has also worked with Universities UK and the National Union of Students to address the problem.
“Essay mills are completely unethical and profit by undermining the hard work most students do. We are taking steps to ban these cheating services,” said minister for skills Alex Burghart.
Former universities minister Chris Skidmore introduced a backbench motion in February 2021 to outlaw the websites – it is a decision that has received backing from universities and student unions. Speaking in the Commons earlier this year, Skidmore said: “These so-called essay mills are a rot that infects the very discipline of learning and has the potential to damage academic integrity beyond repair.
“It is sad to say that it is a rot that is spreading, not only in higher education but across all forms and levels of education, from schools to further education colleges. The online presence of essay mills and their websites, which encourage contract cheating, is all-pervasive.”
Three years ago, it was estimated that 115,000 students at UK universities were buying essays, the former minister said.
The bill also reform careers guidance for students in key stage four and five, “to ensure that all pupils have opportunities to learn about all the technical education options available to them”, the Department for Education added. ““We have also announced a new measure to make sure all young people receive broader careers guidance so everyone can get the advice that’s right for them,” said Burghart.