Ministers concerned about the growing scale of cheating at university have announced a crackdown on so-called “essay mill” websites that provide written-to-order papers for students to submit as part of their degrees.
Jo Johnson, the universities minister, has asked student bodies and institutions for guidance to help combat “contract plagiarism”, where tens of thousands of students are believed to be buying essays for hundreds of pounds a time.
A report by the independent university regulator last summer found that essay writing websites often advertise their services to students for a fee and many promote “plagiarism-free guarantees” or essays tested against plagiarism detection software.
According to the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA), there are now more than 100 essay mill websites in operation. The amount they charge is dependent on the complexity of the essay and tightness of deadline, ranging from several hundred pounds for a single essay to £6,750 for a PhD dissertation.
'It's not a victimless crime' – the murky business of buying academic essays
In Britain it is left to individual institutions to develop their own plagiarism policies. But in its research, the QAA recommended new laws to make it illegal to help students “commit acts of academic dishonesty for financial gain”, punishable with fines of up to £5,000. It suggested the UK look to New Zealand, where essay mills have been fined and their assets have been frozen.
The Guardian was on Monday able to access several websites that offered essays on most if not all degree subjects. Most sites required a name, email address and debit card details to purchase an essay, with no restriction on the area of study being requested.
On one site, buyessay.co.uk, students were required to enter the requested attainment level for the essay, the desired length and deadline as well as a description of the assignment. Most sites also asked the desired format of the essay, including line spaces and footnote style. The prices quoted to the Guardian varied from £36 for a two-page essay to £154 for 1,500 words.
The buyessay.co.uk site also carried a message saying use of the essay writing service did not constitute cheating.
The new guidance, expected to be available for the beginning of the 2017-18 teaching year, is to include tough penalties for those who use the websites and offer more information on the potential impact on students’ future careers.
Calling on universities to do more to crack down on contract plagiarism, Johnson said: “This form of cheating is unacceptable and every university should have strong policies and sanctions in place to detect and deal with it.”
Thomas Lancaster, an associate dean at Staffordshire University and one of the UK’s leading experts on essay cheating, said that while universities had anti-plagiarism software to detect copying of academic texts, they could not prevent the process of contract cheating, where students employ ghostwriters to complete new assignments.
“We think this is a substantial problem affecting universities, that students can go and pay other people to do their assignments for them,” he said.
Working in collaboration with Prof Robert Clarke of Birmingham City University, Lancaster identified at least 30,000 examples of students purchasing essays online.
“We’ve been looking at sites where students publicly post their request, but a lot of sites are hidden so that number is just a tiny proportion of all the work,” he said. “We’re confident there’s tens of millions of pounds of business going through essay mills sites every year. It’s big business.
“Advertising appears around university campuses, we observed people giving out business cards in car parks, people putting up flyers on lampposts, even sometimes getting their adverts into secure parts of university buildings.”
The sites are based all over the world, Lancaster said, and quite often the same company operates under a number of domains. “We can put legislation in place to prevent sites from operating from within the UK but they could just move overseas,” he said, adding that the focus could be placed on tackling UK-based advertising of the services on campuses, search engines and social media.
The QAA has been tasked with taking action against the online advertising of the services and to work with international agencies to tackle the problem.
Meanwhile, an amendment has been proposed by Lord Storey, co-chair of the committee on education, families and young people, to the higher education and research bill that would make it an offence to provide or advertise cheating services.
“It’s not illegal for sites to offer to write model essays, it’s not illegal for somebody to buy an essay, but of course if they buy an essay, hand it in, and get a degree they don’t deserve and use that degree to get a job, then there is some kind of fraudulent transaction going on there,” Lancaster said. “I do think universities should do more to tackle essay mills and work with students but universities also need support from the government and a legal framework, it’s a two-way street.”
The government’s move also comes a month after researchers at Swansea University recommended the state bring in tougher new regulations to impose fines on essay mills after concluding the 2006 Fraud Act was unlikely to be effective in tackling the issue, largely due to disclaimers and caveats used by the companies.
“We would hope that a legal approach would at least act as a deterrent to would-be users of these services and serve as a lever to change behaviour,” Michael Draper and Philip Newton, co-authors of the report, wrote in a blogpost.
“However, legal changes alone are not the answer to this problem. We need to ensure that assessments are rigorous and less open to completion by a third party ... we need to make sure it is preferable for students to ‘do the right thing’.”
Ian Kimber, QAA’s director of universities, quality enhancement and standards, said: “Essay mills are a major challenge for universities and colleges because, unlike other forms of cheating, the practice is notoriously difficult to detect.”
Dame Julia Goodfellow, president of Universities UK, emphasised that submitting work written by someone else constituted cheating, and said she would continue to work with QAA and the National Union of Students to update sector guidance in the area.
“Universities have severe penalties for students found to be submitting work that is not their own,” Goodfellow added. “Such academic misconduct is a breach of an institution’s disciplinary regulations and can result in students, in serious cases, being expelled from the university.”
Anyone who has been to university will understand the time and effort needed to write lengthy dissertations and essays as part of their degree course.
Often months of commitment of researching and writing means any chance of a social life is blown out the water. Anxious students embark on so called “all nighters” to get the job done while a Saturday night out with friends is shunned for an evening of knuckling down into an 8,000-word thesis.
But increasingly students are now turning to their wallets to get their hands on academic work. An ever-growing number of online essay and dissertation writing services are luring students into parting with hundreds of pounds each in exchange for bespoke, tailor-made coursework.
A quick search online will reveal a firm called Oxbridge Essays – one of the most popular ghost-writing services available to hundreds of thousands of university students across the country.
The company offers custom-made undergraduate and master’s degree essays for between £100 and £20,000 – all “custom written by academics from leading UK universities” – which is guaranteed to be the standard of a first or a 2:1.
The firm describes itself as the “UK's largest and leading provider of guaranteed Upper 1st, 1st Class and 2:1 essays and dissertations” with all subjects from Airline and Airport Management to Forensic Chemistry catered for.
Students wanting to buy a 10,000 word essay, for example, will be required to hand over around £500.
Oxbridge Essays boasts that its service “provides model examples of academic research that are intended to be used by clients as inspiration for their own work”.
A section on its website asks: “Is it cheating?” to which it responds: “Ordering a model essay or dissertation does not make you a cheat. In fact, it usually shows that you are a hard-working and conscientious student.
“When used correctly, our model essays and dissertations are meant to be 'learning aids' which students use to improve their understanding of their university materials.
“In this sense, our essays are like private tutorials where the tutor shows you exactly how to answer the particular question that you discuss together.
“As long as you use our work in the correct way, you are not cheating by ordering from us.”
Despite the guidelines, an Argus investigation has discovered 1,382 students at the University of Sussex and the University of Brighton have been investigated for cheating - otherwise known as “academic misconduct” – since 2010.
Since the start of the 2011 academic year, the University of Sussex logged a total of 561 cases of academic misconduct. More than 60% of those cases, 351, were for plagiarism.
The figures include the most recent statistics since September last year, where bosses at the Falmer establishment were alerted to 116 individual cases.
Nearly 20% of all plagiarised work at the University of Sussex came from media and film students, followed by 11% from the Informatics department – which includes computer sciences.
Students from law, maths, English, history, sciences, business management and other courses were also caught with plagiarised work.
However, The Argus spoke to one law student who used an online essay writing service and got away with it.
The student told how she paid £250 for a 1,500 word answer.
Wanting to keep her identity anonymous, she said: “With seven vital essays due in a tight deadline it kept me awake at night.
“Whilst I generally enjoyed my legal studies, this was a subject that I had never come to terms with. A strong resistance had set in at the mere mention of that subject. Suffice to say that during lectures I could well have been a visitor from another planet.
“I had no qualms about going online to shop for a prolonged answer.”
Asked whether she felt guilty about cheating, she said: “Such was my urgent need that I didn't feel guilty. I knew I had to be ruthless to be kind to myself. The other six essays had been duly completed and this subject was the only stumbling block to my becoming an honest, qualified woman of the law.
“There were many sellers out there, probably hard-up past and present students. I don't know about the takers as I never discussed my little secret with anyone.”
The student is now a practicing solicitor in Sussex and said she was “relieved” to have got away with buying an essay online but found the whole process “far too easy”.
The University of Sussex says it prevents academic misconduct through “educating students in appropriate academic conduct” and that “all cases must be seriously considered”.
However its policy states that students caught plagiarising work “will not be penalised where a previous occurrence has not taken place”.
Instead, it says, students will be given “feedback and offered the opportunity to attend an academic practice workshop provided the student is not in the final stage of an undergraduate course or the misconduct is not on the dissertation or project of a postgraduate course”.
A spokesman from the university said the number of instances of academic misconduct was decreasing “year on year”.
He said: “In this digital age, when students have access to so many rich sources of information at their fingertips, all universities will from time to time have to handle cases of plagiarism or other academic misconduct.
“Some offences are serious but in many cases students simply fail to adequately reference somebody else’s work.
“The introduction of two simple, additional measures has led to the number of cases of academic misconduct more than halving over the past two years.
“Firstly, we introduced Turnitin - an online ‘text matching’ tool - for all students, giving them the opportunity to check their work and their referencing before they submit it.
“Our examiners and assessors also use Turnitin to check students’ work for plagiarism. We also began offering students workshops in academic practice.
“This proactive and supportive approach is paying off. The number of cases of academic misconduct is falling even as our student population increases.”
Turnitin is believed to cost universities around £8,000 year to run. But when The Argus posed as a student looking to buy an essay from uk.bestessays.com, we were told programmes like Turnitin would not pick up any essays brought from the website as they were “100% original and bespoke”.
At the University of Brighton, a total of 821 students have been involved in cases of academic misconduct since the start of the 2010/2011 academic year.
The way the university recorded the cases differed to the University of Sussex. It did not distinguish which subjects the students were studying but did break down the annual figures by “major” and “minor” cases. It recorded 434 major and 387 minor cases.
Phil Mills, a spokesman for the University of Brighton, said its interpretation of academic misconduct “mainly referred to poor academic practice where the student has incorrectly referenced a source or has forgotten to reference the work altogether”.
He added: “Half of these minor misconduct cases concern students in their first year and we pick up on problems at the earliest opportunity to help them apply the highest standards of academic integrity and to ensure they do not repeat the mistakes.
“All suspicions are taken to a major panel so we can properly find out what happened. Sometimes there is a reasonable explanation such as an apparent collusion between students that was, in fact, a shared project, or there are compelling mitigating circumstances which were undisclosed. Each case is examined thoroughly.”
Mr Mills said that the instances of intentional cheating at the University of Brighton were “very low indeed” and that 99% percent of all students do not experience any problems with “poor academic practice or misconduct”.
He added: “And we make it clear to all students that we deplore the use of essay-writing services and stress that we are vigilant in detecting stylistic differences which may suggest work was not originated by the student.”
Despite the apparent crackdowns on plagiarism and cheating by university chiefs, uk.bestessays.com claimed to have completed more than 440 orders yesterday alone.