Trouble at mill: protecting students from contract cheating

There is growing concern in government and among universities and colleges about students’ use of essay mills. Where does the OfS’s commitment to protecting standards in higher education fit in?

The use of essay mills in higher education is a global phenomenon. It is possible to estimate the number of essay writing services at close to 1,000. And the number of services available has been growing.

Essay mills are exploitative and immoral. Behind their slick marketing lie organisations which exist only to enrich themselves with no concern for the damage they cause. The pandemic and the shift to online learning and assessment has – unfortunately – led to a further recent increase in the number of sites targeting their services at higher education students in England and the UK.

A matter of standards

Essay mills are businesses which offer essay-writing services to students for a fee. These are often original pieces of writing which claim to be for a legitimate purpose, but which are then handed in by students as their own work. The practice is also referred to as commercial contract cheating.

The OfS is concerned about the growth of these services for two reasons. First, they put individual students at risk. Second, they threaten standards in higher education more widely.

The impact of using these services on individual students cannot be overstated. While it should be said that the overwhelming majority of students do not cheat, those students who do resort to essay mills may be under real pressure and feel that buying an essay is a way out. It is not.

Universities and colleges rightly have policies in place to identify and respond to cheating in assessment. The consequences for students can be severe, including removal from their course. Aside from the obvious academic consequences, students are also exposing themselves to a shadowy industry where cybercrime looms large and their personal data is at risk. And, even if they aren’t caught, students who contract out their learning miss out on the educational benefits of the assignment, and risk falling behind in their course. Essay mills are never the answer in any circumstances.

The wider impact of essay mills is profound too. If students are using these services in numbers this threatens standards in English universities and colleges and raises important questions about the integrity of the qualifications they award.

At all higher education levels, from Certificates of Higher Education (CertHE) to doctoral degrees (PhDs), the sector-recognised standards in the OfS regulatory framework set out the knowledge and skills students must have demonstrated to be awarded their qualification.

For a bachelors’ degree with honours, for example, the OfS sector-recognised standards state that students should have demonstrated, among other things, an ability to devise and sustain arguments, and/or to solve problems, using ideas and techniques, some of which are at the forefront of a discipline.

Where a student has bought their essays from an essay mill, they have not demonstrated that they can do these things. Standards, and the long-term value of their qualification, both to the student and to employers, are immediately compromised.

What can universities and colleges do?

As a principles-based regulator, the OfS does not set out specific policies that providers should follow to maintain quality and protect standards, but we do expect them to take the steps necessary to do so.

In practice this means that providers should, for example, ensure that they are designing assessments that remove opportunities for students to cheat, and ensuring that students are made aware of the risks of using essay mills to deter them from using such services. We also expect providers to ensure they can detect and deal robustly and fairly with individual cases of contract cheating.

Universities and colleges should also consider some of the associated cybersecurity issues. Essay mills are taking an increasingly sophisticated approach to targeting students, which includes seeking to compromise providers’ websites.

This represents a serious risk to university and college security, and their reputation and integrity as publicly funded institutions. This is a vicious circle too: if providers’ websites are compromised this also increases the likelihood of students coming into contact with essay mills.

We support the steps already being taken by the sector to support individual providers to engage with these matters. There is other welcome work underway. Universities and colleges have come together, coordinated by the QAA, to pledge to combat the threat of essay mills.

A group of students and student representatives has voiced their concerns about essay mills and explained why they believe students fall victim to these practices. 

Emerging evidence from Australia and Ireland suggests that legislation has the potential to have a positive impact in helping to tackle this issue, particularly alongside a wider package of activity to deter, detect and address contract cheating.

In England, the government has recently expressed support for the principles behind Lord Storey’s Higher Education Cheating Services Prohibition Bill and is exploring the Bill’s potential, particularly as part of a wider approach, to reduce the number of essay mills in operation and to send a clear sign to students and the companies themselves that this activity is illegal.

The role of the OfS

The OfS has been working with the Department for Education and sector bodies to address this issue and support students who might be targeted by these services. We believe a multi-pronged, sector-led, programme of work is the right way to clamp down on essay mills. The issues are complex and a multifaceted approach is necessary: ministers are considering the benefits of legislation; good information, advice and guidance for students is essential; and the OfS has its regulatory tools too.

We are working with our student panel, asking for students' advice on what the OfS can do to make students more aware of the real consequences of using these services. As a regulator, should we see evidence that standards may be at risk, we will engage with the providers concerned to understand what they are doing to make sure they are compliant with our conditions of registration. And we plan to go further.

In the coming weeks, we will be launching the next stage of our consultation on our future approach to regulating quality and standards. That will contain detailed proposals to ensure providers are playing their part and delivering rigorous assessment and reliable standards for all students.


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Published 02 July 2021

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