With the passing of the Skills and Post-16 Education Act 2022 – more commonly known as the skills bill – it is now a criminal offence in England to provide or arrange paid-for essay writing services, or contract cheating.
While it is also now an offence to advertise such services, users will not be criminalised.
The move brings England into line with countries including Australia, Ireland, and New Zealand.
“There is now a strengthened, collaborative effort across the sector to tackle essay mills and we want you to be part of this campaign,” said skills minister, Alex Burghart, in a letter to internet service platforms.
“We are aware that high numbers of essay mills have used your platform to promote their services to students in the past, paying for advertising to promote their companies.
“Essay mills are now illegal entities, and you should not carry their advertising. It is no longer a moral question; you will be facilitating an illegal activity.”
The new legislation follows growing concern about the impact of essay mills on HE.
In February last year, former universities minister, Chris Skidmore, introduced a backbench motion to outlaw contract cheating, citing 2018 figures suggesting that 115,000 students at UK universities were buying essays.
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“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,” said Skidmore.
“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.”
In June 2020, the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education published guidance on how the sector should deal with the issue, following Channel 4 research claiming that universities were detecting fewer than one per cent of bought-in essays.
The outlawing of essay mills was welcomed by Turnitin, an online plagiarism detection service which worked with Skidmore ahead of his backbench motion.
“With an estimated one in seven students falling prey to essay mills, we wholeheartedly back the government’s decision to take action on what is a growing problem in universities in the UK,” said Aaron Yaverski, Turnitin regional VP for Europe.
“Essay mills use clever marketing techniques to deliberately target students who may be feeling anxious or vulnerable. We’ve seen essay mills sponsor articles to appear as reliable news in attempts to assure that their practices are not unethical.”
Yaverski also backed the move to criminalise the service provider, rather than the user.
“In many cases, academic misconduct is unintentional—a skills and knowledge gap,” he added.
“Students may be unaware that using an essay mill is wrong, particularly when the companies behind them use such persuasive and manipulative marketing techniques.”