Universities demand crackdown on ‘essay mills’

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Academic plagiarism is once again in the spotlight, as 46 university officials in the United Kingdom have written to the UK Secretary of State for Education calling for a ban on companies offering written-to-order essays. The letter came amidst reports that, despite ongoing efforts by both universities and governments globally, plagiarism cases are on the rise. Such a ban has already been implemented in New Zealand and Australia, and is currently being considered by Minister for Education, Richard Bruton.

The targeted companies, referred to in the letter as “Essay Mills”, provide students with unique, personalised essays, written by other students and academics, with price depending on length, timeframe and desired grade. According to the letter, these companies “undermine the integrity of UK Higher Education and are unfair to the vast majority of honest, hard-working students”. The signatories of the letter include the Vice-Chancellors of over 30 UK universities as well the heads of many other third level education institutions.

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A recent study conducted by Prof. Philip Newton at Swansea University Medical School revealed that in samples from 2014 to present, an average of 15.7% of students admitted to having paid someone to complete an assignment. This figure is up from the historic average of just 3.52% in 1978.

What makes “Essay Mills” of special concern to universities is the fact that each essay is one of a kind. This allows them to pass the plagiarism detectors used by the universities, which can only check the submitted essay against databases and the internet.

This idea of a ban on such services is not only being considered in the UK. The letter itself actually makes reference to an Irish Bill, proposed in May of 2017 by the Minister for Education and Skills, Richard Bruton. This Bill would include “new powers to prosecute ‘essay mills’ and other forms of academic cheating”, and would make Ireland the third country in the world, after Australia and New Zealand, to introduce specific measures to combat this issue. Minister Bruton said that the proposal is “vital to ensuring an equal playing field for all our students.” It remains to be seen how exactly this bill would be implemented, and which companies fall within the Minister’s definition of “Essay Mills”.

Something mentioned specifically both in the Irish proposal and the letter is preventing these companies from explicitly advertising their services, especially using wording that implies the essays are made to be fraudulently passed off as a student’s own work. The letter makes explicit reference to the London underground, likely due to an Advertising campaign by “Okessay.co.uk” in 2016. The posters, which were located in tube stations, had the slogan: “Got an essay due tomorrow?”.

While it is clear that such advertisement would not be acceptable under new legislation, it is less clear how the legislation would handle essay writing services that do not condone their essays being passed off as the students own. The Dublin based site “writemyassignments.com”, offer “support, consultation and editing services as well as sample papers for undergraduate and postgraduate students.” Their terms and conditions state they “do not condone our customers to submit documents received through our services to any third level institution under the pretence of being their own work”.

Any legislation intending to help resolve the concerns brought up in the letter would almost certainly have to address the possibility of students abusing such services by submitting the work as their own regardless. In New Zealand, for example, websites such as “essaywriting.nz” still advertise themselves as “Cheap Write My Essay Solutions From New Zealand”, despite legislation being in place there since 2011.

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