Lord Storey (Liberal Democrat) introduced his Higher Education Cheating Services Prohibition Bill [HL] on 24 May 2021. This was after he came third in the private member’s bill ballot held at the beginning of the 2021–22 session. The bill is Lord Storey’s fourth on the issue, with previous versions having been introduced in the 2019–21, 2019 and 2017–19 sessions. None of these earlier bills were debated at second reading.

What would the bill do?

The bill would make it an offence to provide or advertise cheating services to students enrolled at higher education providers in England. Lord Storey has explained the rationale for the proposed measure as follows:

The academic integrity of our universities is the cornerstone of UK higher education.

Over the last ten years we have seen the growth of ‘essay mill’ companies. These provide students with ready-made essays and dissertations which for a fee can be downloaded and then submitted as their own work. We have also seen the growth of contract cheating services which enable students to pay somebody to write assignments for them.

Essay mills and contract cheating have become big business with the number of students using these cheating services increasing every year. Universities have turned to the use of computer programmes which can identify plagiarism to try and stop cheating. The companies prey on the vulnerability of students, particularly those from overseas. Most students who do their own academic work feel angry and annoyed by companies which help students cheat.

The problem is not confined to the UK, and other countries (including Ireland, New Zealand and the USA) have now passed legislation to curtail their use.

Overview of the bill’s provisions

The bill has one substantive clause. This specifies that a person would commit an offence if they both provide and receive, or reasonably expect to receive, a payment, financial reward or other financial benefit for providing a higher education ‘cheating’ service. The bill defines this as a service provided to a student of a higher education provider in England that consists of:

  • completing (in whole or in part) on behalf of the student an assignment, examination or any other work that the student is required to complete personally as part of a higher education course without authorisation from the person who imposed the requirement, such that the assignment, examination or other work could not reasonably be considered that of the student; or
  • arranging for another person to complete (in whole or in part) on behalf of the student an assignment, examination or any other work that the student is required to complete personally as part of a higher education course without authorisation from the person who imposed the requirement, such that the assignment, examination or other work could not reasonably be considered that of the student.

A person would also commit an offence if they advertised or published, without reasonable excuse, an advertisement for such a service. However, they would not be guilty of an offence for doing any of the above if they could demonstrate they would not be able to know the work could be used in such a way. The bill states:

A person shall not be guilty of an offence […] if they demonstrate that they did not know and could not with reasonable diligence know that the service might or would be used by a student enrolled on a higher education course to complete an assignment, examination or other work that the student is required to undertake personally as part of that course without authorisation from the person who imposed the requirement.

A person committing an offence would be liable to a fine on both summary conviction (for example, in a magistrates’ court) and conviction on indictment (in the crown court).

In cases where a body corporate, for example a company, was found guilty of an offence, the bill provides that officers or those claiming to act in such a capacity would also be liable for punishment.

The bill’s second and last clause provides for the bill’s extent and short title. It also sets out that the bill would come into force on the day it received royal assent.

What are essay mills and why are they a problem?

The Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) has described essay mills as “commercial entities that make money by encouraging students to cheat”. It adds:

While some are based in the UK, they are a global phenomenon impacting on higher education systems and providers around the world. Their use has the potential to damage the reputation of UK higher education. Typically, they will charge a student to write their assessment, which the student will then submit as their own work. They will often use sophisticated marketing techniques, and some will resort to blackmail or extortion once students have used their services.

The QAA has said that academic misconduct not only presents a threat to the reputation of UK higher education, but also contributes to a wider societal problem. This is because students who cheat may enter the workforce without the necessary skills, knowledge and competency that employers expect based on their qualifications. This can have serious potential public health and safety implications.

How widespread is academic cheating?

There is widespread sector agreement that it is very difficult to quantify how many students use ‘essay mill’ or other third-party contract cheating services. In response to a written question on the issue asked in December 2020, the Government noted this and explained this was because the bespoke nature of paid for assignments “can make it difficult for providers to detect that it is not the student’s own work”.

However, the QAA has noted that research indicates the use by students of essay mills and contract cheating services appears to have increased in recent years. It has cited a study from 2018 that found the number of students outside the UK who had admitted to paying for assignments since 2014 equated to one in seven. The study was also cited by the Government in response to a written question on the subject asked earlier in 2020. In this answer, the Government also referred to QAA figures from 2016 that showed there were approximately 17,000 instances of academic offences per year within the UK, although this total included all types of academic offences.

In February 2021, a former Minister of State for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation, Chris Skidmore, quoted QAA figures that indicated there were “at least 932 [essay mill] sites in operation in the UK”. He said this was up from 904 in December 2020, 881 in October 2020 and 635 in June 2018.

Case for legislation

In September 2018, more than 40 university vice-chancellors wrote to the Government calling for legislation to target essay mill companies. They wrote:

Legislation will not be a magic bullet; it is, however, a vital part of the broader package of measures. Legislation would, amongst other advantages, shut-down UK-based essay mills; prevent the advertising of their services near campuses and in public places such as the London Underground; enable the removal of essay mills from search engine findings and prevent UK-based companies from hosting online advertisements for essay mills.

The following year, the QAA published a paper on the case for legislation to address the issue of contract cheating services. This concluded that despite interventions including the publication of guidance by the QAA and National Union of Students (NUS), the creation of an Academic Integrity Advisory Group, and the introduction of new generation plagiarism detection software in universities, the use of essay mills did not appear to be declining. The paper argued that legislation was therefore needed to criminalise the practice in the UK. It said:

[…] the introduction of legislation, coupled with the ongoing measures referred to above and the introduction of new generation plagiarism software, can help create a hostile environment for essay mills in which to operate. These are commercial entities, motivated only by profit. If their operations are no longer financially sustainable, they will cease business.

The paper surveyed approaches taken or being considered in other jurisdictions before considering the merits of different approaches in a domestic context. After discounting approaches that risked either criminalising students (as taken in Australia) or creating an offence that raised potential difficulties by being too broadly defined (as in New Zealand), it endorsed an approach based on a “limited strict liability offence”. It argued this would create a defence of due diligence, with the evidential burden and associated costs falling on essay mill companies instead of the Crown Prosecution Service. Such an offence was based on proposals by Michael Draper and Philip Newton of Swansea University in a paper published in 2017. The wording in the Higher Education Cheating Services Prohibition Bill is based on that suggested text.

What has the Government said?

During passage of the Higher Education and Research Bill in 2017, the Government rejected the case for legislating on the issue at that stage. This was because it believed a “sector-led, non-legislative initiative” was the best approach to tackling the issue in the first instance. The Government added, however, that it would monitor the effectiveness of such an approach and remained “open to legislation in the future should the steps we are taking prove insufficient”.

The Government has since repeatedly reiterated its preference for a non-legislative approach to tackling essay mill and contract cheating services. This has included encouraging activity by the Office for Students, QAA, NUS, universities and other stakeholders, for example in responses to an oral question; a regret motion debate; and written questions on the subject.

In June 2020, Baroness Berridge, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Department for Education, repeated that the Government was aware legislation had been introduced in several countries to ban contract cheating services. She added:

We would be willing to consider supporting any legislation, including a private member’s bill, that is workable and that contains measures that would eliminate essay mills in ways that cannot be delivered through other means, provided that the parliamentary time permitted.

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Cover image by Brett Jordan on Unsplash.