The University of Warwick’s vice chancellor has joined the call for essay-writing mills to be made illegal in order “to safeguard the reputation” of UK universities.
A letter to education secretary Damian Hinds has been signed by 46 university chiefs across the UK, including Warwick vice chancellor Stuart Croft.
It demands that the essay writing services are banned because they are unfair to “honest, hard-working students”.
Currently it is legal for companies in the UK to both provide and advertise assignments to order; however, organisations including Universities UK have been running campaigns against it.
The BBC reports though that the vice chancellors are calling for those who provide the services to be the target of the new laws rather than students.
In the letter, university leaders also argue that legislation should prevent the advertising of essay mills near campuses and the companies should be removed from search engines to tackle students based abroad.
A recent study by Swansea University revealed that as many as one in seven university essays were written using an essay-writing service during the last four years.
However, students who get caught face punishment by their university, including possible disqualification.
I expect universities to be educating students about these services and highlight the stiff, and possibly life changing, penalties they face
– Sam Gyimah
Universities Minister Sam Gyimah has said that work is ongoing to tackle the problem and outlawing the services completely remains an option.
He criticised the services for “normalising and enabling cheating” in UK higher education institutions and also for potentially putting the UK’s international reputation at risk.
“I expect universities to be educating students about these services and highlight the stiff, and possibly life changing, penalties they face,” he said.
“I also want the sector to do more to grip the problem, for example by tackling advertising of these services in their institutions and finally blocking these services from sending an alarming number of emails to the inboxes of university students and staff.
“I have been working with organisations across the higher education sector to bear down on this problem and this has already resulted in the likes of YouTube removing adverts for these essay mills, but legislative options are not off the table.”
Writing for The Guardian, journalist and former employee of a “proofreading” company, Sam Hickford offered a “cautious defence of essay mills in the face of the new ban, or at least a few caveats”.
He said that “deciding what is and what is not an ‘essay mill’ could be tricky” and also wrote of how the work was “intellectually challenging” and “stimulating”.
“If such a ban were imposed, an authentically enjoyable stream of work for writers would dry up,” he said.
However, he concluded that “ultimately” education is more than marks that are achieved and that “if students pay for essays, they have missed a great opportunity for actual education, to their own eventual detriment”.
Essay mills are illegal in other countries such as New Zealand, Australia and in some US states. The Irish government announced a new law that would grant Quality and Qualifications Ireland (QQI), “specific powers to prosecute ‘essay mills’ and other forms of cheating”.
A parliamentary petition calling for a ban on the provision and advertising of essay mills -currently with over 5,000 signatures- was started in August.
Swansea University’s study, published in August, reviewed questionnaires dating back to 1978 where students were asked if they had ever paid for someone else to complete their work.
Students will look for external help wherever they can find it, regardless of whether there is a fair marketplace with choice and transparent reviews for the service or not
– Kai Feller
The report, covering 54,514 participants, showed a 15.7% rise in the number of students who admitted to cheating between 2014 and 2018.
In March the Advertising Standards Agency banned adverts for an essay writing company by failing to make it clear that the papers were not meant to be submitted by students as their own original work.
Research by Bark.com, an online service that allows members of the public to connect with local professionals in a number of sectors, shows a sharp increase in the demand for essay writing services.
Co-founder of the site, Kai Feller said: “We have a wide range of academic professionals on Bark.com, with students at all levels requesting additional tutoring.
“Recently, we have seen a rise in demand for essay-writing services on site.
“In the last two years, there has been an 18% increase in customers looking for help with writing assignments at University level, including dissertations.”
According to the site, the essay writing services will continue to grow, as Mr Feller drew attention to: “These services will remain profitable as long as there is demand, and our data shows us that demand has never been higher.
“Students will look for external help wherever they can find it, regardless of whether there is a fair marketplace with choice and transparent reviews for the service or not.”
Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of the Office for Students (OfS), echoed concerns surrounding the essay writing services: “The rise in the use of essay mills in recent years has sought to turn cheating into an industry.
“Essay mills are deeply unethical and their operation is unfair on the vast majority of students who hand in their own work.
“The OfS has a central role to play in ending essay mills; universities and colleges wishing to register with us must demonstrate that they are protecting the reliability and credibility of degree standards.”