UK universities call for ban on essay writing companies
More than 45 university chiefs on Thursday called on the UK government to ban companies that produce essays for students for a fee. The so-called "essay mills" are known to exist around the world, including in India, offering students the option to pay for bespoke course work that helps them score the right grades. Such companies are already banned in New Zealand, Australia and some parts of the US. British universities now want a similar crackdown in the UK.
"Essay mills undermine the integrity of UK higher education and are unfair to the vast majority of honest, hard-working students," noted the letter addressed to UK Education Secretary Damian Hinds."We are confident that you abhor such cheating as much as we do and encourage you to take the necessary steps to curb these practices, steps which must include a legislative ban on operating or advertising an essay mill," it added.
It is hoped that once such services are made illegal, the laws against advertising would also help tackle overseas companies marketing their essay writing or coursework services in Britain.
"The market for essays in India has got very sophisticated. Some people work for the big essay writing firms, but there are now a lot of individual writers marketing their services and earning a living," said Dr Thomas Lancaster, a computer science academic and researcher on the subject of "contract cheating". "My background is computer science, so we also see students looking to have more technical assessments done for them, such as computer programming exercises. India is currently a hot bed for technology and there are people out there who will do this for easy money in the evenings after their main job is completed for the day," he said.
The Russell Group is backing the call
The Russell Group, which represents the UK's elite universities, is backing the latest call for a government clampdown on all forms of "contract cheating". Russell Group Chair Professor Sir Anton Muscatelli and Chief Executive Dr Tim Bradshaw were among the signatories of the letter.
"Legislation will not be a magic bullet; it is, however, a vital part of the broader package of measures," the letter noted.
The university chiefs said legislation would, amongst other advantages, shut-down UK-based essay mills and prevent the advertising of their services near campuses and in public places such as the London Underground. Legislation would enable the removal of essay mills from search engine findings and prevent UK-based companies from hosting online advertisements for essay mills, the letter noted.
The university vice-chancellors also want the government to support efforts by the Quality and Assurance Agency (QAA), the UK's higher education standards body, and the Office for Students (OFS) to tackle the issue. The QAA has previously proposed the establishment of a UK Centre for Academic Integrity with a remit to research and analyse academic misconduct.
"Essay mills are a global issue, with companies operating in many jurisdictions. This makes regulation difficult," the QAA had noted.
According to Lancaster, the answer also lies in tackling the demand side of the problem. He said, "The big problem we have is that there is a demand for essay writers and assignment providers. Countries like India are just helping to fuel that market. What we need to do is to remove that demand so that students don't contact such workers to have their assessments completed for them."
The range of solutions would include assessments that are harder for students to cheat on, using areas like presentations, practical tests, workplace simulations and exams. The UK's universities minister, Sam Gyimah, has indicated that banning such essay mills remains an option alongside other measures.
"I expect universities to be educating students about these services and highlight the stiff, and possibly life changing, penalties they face," he said.
Under the current rules, students who get caught accessing such essay mills face punishment by their university, including possible disqualification. However, the latest drive by university chiefs is aimed at making it illegal for a company or individuals to offer such a service to the students in the first place.