Contract cheating: Tackling the use of essay mills

The QAA today published new guidance to help tackle the use of essay mills

The Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) today published ‘Contracting to Cheat: How to Address Essay Mills and Contract Cheating’.

The new guidance for UK higher education providers is designed to help them protect academic integrity and combat the use of essay mills in their institutions.

Essay mills encourage cheating

Essay mills are commercial entities that make money by encouraging students to cheat. 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.

A sector-wide response, working with governments and regulators, can help us get on the front foot in putting an end to the contract cheating industry – Douglas Blackstock, QAA CEO

Douglas Blackstock, QAA CEO, said: “The essay mill industry has become increasingly sophisticated and exists to make money by encouraging students to cheat. Students at every university or college in the UK will be targeted by them.”

Typically, essay mills 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. Research by Swansea University indicates their use by students has increased in recent years but that less than one per cent are caught.

Universities Minister Michelle Donelan commented: “This is a difficult time for students, and those who are feeling particularly worried about their studies could be more vulnerable to essay mills marketing right now. It is abhorrent for these companies to take advantage of students in this situation and profit from anxiety during a global pandemic.”

New guidance

The guidance, which is published with the support of governments across the UK, shows that many UK higher education institutions have designed effective institutional strategies and academic integrity practices to educate staff, support students, reduce opportunities to cheat and detect academic misconduct. However, more needs to be done.

Key findings and recommendations are:

  • Identifying a strategic lead with responsibility for staff training and institutional co-ordination can help improve detection of essay mill use.
  • Assessment design can help reduce opportunities to cheat, but no assessment should ever be considered cheat proof.
  • Technology can help detect the use of essay mills, but is most effective when used by experienced 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 be aware, or can easily access, information and procedures to follow to report a suspicion of academic misconduct

The guidance has been written following extensive consultation with universities, colleges, expert academics and students from across the UK. It updates earlier guidance with new advice, intelligence and good practice in response to the ever-evolving threat of essay mills.

Blackstock commented: “A sector-wide response, working with governments and regulators, can help us get on the front foot in putting an end to the contract cheating industry”.

Donelan added: “I know universities are working hard to respond to coronavirus, to continue delivering their courses and supporting students. I hope this guidance, along with innovations in technology, will help them protect the integrity of our world-leading higher education and prevent students turning to contract cheating.”

You might also like: Tools to ensure remote assessment with integrity


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