Tackling contract cheating, ghostwriters and Essay Mills in Higher Education

We are improving the integrity of higher education

We are improving higher education

The Challenge

Increasing numbers of the 200+ million students in global Higher Education (HE) are paying others to complete assignments for them. This problem (contract cheating) threatens the standards and quality of Higher Education around the world. In 2015, it was legal for companies to offer these services, and the problems caused were poorly understood.  

Commercial services, sometimes referred to as ‘essay mills’, deliver work in under 5 days on average, with a quarter of orders being delivered within 24 hours. Studies of academics in the UK and Australia showed that academics have a poor understanding of the nature of contract cheating, and yet believe it to be widespread. The research also identifies a profound need for greater education of staff and students, about contract cheating and academic integrity in general. 

The Method

Professor Phil Newton, Professor Michael Draper and their team carried out large surveys, research and analysis of students’ and academic staffs’ views on contract cheating and the legality of essay mills.  

The large survey studies in Australia, taking a broader view of academic outsourcing, have shown that students are more likely to report engaging in these behaviours where they are dissatisfied, perceive lots of opportunities to cheat, and are studying in a non-native language. 

Staff express concern that there are insufficient resources available to them to deal with contract cheating, and the commercialisation of higher education has made it more likely that these behaviours will occur.  

The research showed that UK-registered Essay Mills are currently legal and that existing UK law would not be effective. The research was debated multiple times in UK Houses of Parliament, where additional limitations were identified with the use of legal means to tackle contract cheating.  

The team researched and proposed the basis for a new law, addressing all the limitations of existing legislation. In particular, the existing laws around the world require a prosecutor to demonstrate ‘intent’ [to help students cheat] on behalf of the Essay Mill, and the analysis demonstrated that all UK-registered Essay Mills use a form of disclaimer to protect themselves from allegations of ‘intent’. The team proposed the use of a ‘strict liability’ law to counter this defence. 

The Impact

Changes to the Law 

  • These proposals were used to change the law in Australia, Ireland and Montenegro, and in bills considered by the UK Parliament. All these laws make it illegal to offer, or advertise, contract-cheating services;
  • Ireland and Australia have passed laws which make it illegal to provide contract-cheating services, while the UK is far advanced with a similar bill. The bills are directly influenced by our research and follow conversations between us, and the legal/quality agencies involved. Our research proposes a specific legal approach (strict liability) which has been directly adopted in Australia and de facto utilized in Ireland:
    • The government of Ireland took a bill through their legislature to prohibit the provision of commercial contract cheating services, and the advertising of them. Both Phil Newton and Michael Draper met with the Irish Government and the Irish HE Quality Assurance body (QQI) to advise on the content of the bill and provided feedback on the drafts of the bill before it was submitted for consideration. The bill has now passed into law;
    • The government of Australia drafted a bill to ban contract-cheating services. The bill cites our research multiple times and has now passed into law
    • In the United Kingdom Lord Storey and Baroness Garden of Frognal proposed amendments to the 2017 Higher Education and Research Bill, which would outlaw contract cheating services. The QAA report initially suggested the use of the UK Fraud Act (2006) to address contract cheating and thus Newton and Draper analysed the Act against the current business practises of UK-based essay-writing companies. They concluded that the Fraud Act would not be suitable. A proposal for a new law was developed in later research by Newton and Draper. This paper was the only research cited in a 2018 letter to the Education Minister, signed by over 40 Vice Chancellors of UK Universities, calling for Essay Mills to be banned.
    • The Skills and Post -16 Education Act 2002 originated in the House of Lords in session 2021-22 and passed into law when it received the Royal Assent on Thursday 28th April 2022. Within the Act are sections which ban in England the commercial sale of assignment help and essays to students over compulsory school age, including the advertising of such services.

Changes to the regulatory environment of Higher Education (HE) 

  • We have characterized the problem in detail, leading to improved understanding by all stakeholders. 
  • Professor Newton was part of the working group convened to advise on a report for the UK regulator of Higher Education - Quality Assurance Agency (QAA).  
  • The Department for Education (DFE) (UK) has committed to working with partners across the sector to tackle contract cheating. On 20/03/2018 the Education Minister issued a press release detailing various measures that the department is undertaking and calling on external partners to do the same. The press release directly cites the research above, which was discussed as part of the ensuing debate, including by Newton on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme. This was followed by a letter to the Education Minister with 46 signatories including over 40 Vice Chancellors of UK Universities, calling for him to enact legislation to ban Essay Mills and citing paper 2 above as example of a workable law that could be enacted. 
  • The Council of Europe is undertaking a project to address corruption in education (ETINED) with a specific focus on contract cheating. The Council is committed, on record, to a binding treaty (Policy Framework) across member states to tackle contract cheating and academic fraud more widely. Professor Newton and Professor Draper have both given ‘expert testimony’ to this platform on a number of occasions and Professor Draper is one of two lawyers involved in drafting the Treaty (policy Framework) for adoption by member states in 2021 following approval in principle to a first draft given by delegates from member states in Prague 2019.
  • Professor Newton's research has also indirectly contributed through ETINED to a new Law on Academic Integrity in Montenegro. 
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UN Sustainable goal - Justice
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