Students who use ‘essay mills’ to cheat coursework threatened with blackmail
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He said: “These so-called essay mills aren’t only exploiting vulnerable students who are being driven towards them by worry over their studies. They are also exploiting the consequences of using them – blackmailing students who use their services by then threatening to report them to their universities or their future employers if they do not pay them additional money.
“They exploit the writers of the essays themselves, often poor graduates in Africa, who are forced to work 12 hours at a time writing essays, for just $1 an hour, for their work to then be sold on for between £100 to £300 an essay. These companies form a part of a far darker world that we should not allow our students to fall prey to.”
Mr Skidmore will introduce legislation to prohibit essay mills tomorrow, and powerful educational bodies are also calling for a ban.
He said: “Already, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and most recently Ireland, have passed laws making essay mills and other cheating services illegal. In doing so, they have given their universities the power to make clear to their students how wrong using these services is.
“We now need to follow their lead.”
Gareth Crossman, head of policy for the Quality Assurance Agency for higher education (QAA), warned that essay mills are “targeting student anxiety arising from COVID-19” and are increasing in number.
One website lists more than 930 “essay writing services”.
Mr Crossman said: “This is something that a few years was quite underground. Now you have effectively price comparison sites.”
The QAA has pressed the UK Government to ban essay mills and has written to leading internet companies asking them not to publish advertisements for such services.
It believes that if the websites are criminalised it is less likely they will be hosted by internet service providers or be able to advertise online.
The umbrella body Universities UK has also called for a ban.
A spokesman said: “All universities have codes of conduct that include severe penalties for students found to be submitting work that is not their own. 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.
“Universities have become increasingly experienced at dealing with such issues and are engaging with students from day one to underline the implications of cheating and how it can be avoided. University support services are also there to help vulnerable students struggling with anxiety and stress around coursework and deadlines.”
Hillary Gyebi-Ababio, the vice president of the National Union of Students, said: “We really welcome Chris Skidmore’s efforts to stop essay mills. These private companies prey on students’ vulnerabilities and insecurities to make money through exploitation, and never more so than during the pandemic.
“We hope that preventative action will be taken against them very soon, and in the meantime would urge universities to put in place academic and pastoral support so that students are never in the position of feeling they have to turn to essay mills in the first place.”
A Department for Education spokesman said: “This is a difficult time for students, and those who are feeling particularly worried about their studies could be more vulnerable to essay mills marketing right now. It is abhorrent for these companies to take advantage of students in this situation and profit from anxiety during a global pandemic.
“We are not ruling out legislating on the matter, and are closely monitoring how effective legislation is in other countries.”
The Government wants to avoid both criminalising students and making “legitimate study aids” illegal.
Students are bright – they don’t need help fromso-called ‘tutorialservices’, says CHRIS SKIDMORE
The Covid pandemic has become a deeply worrying time for our children’s education, as pupils and students are forced to stay at home and resort to online learning.
Remote learning is exactly that— while teachers and lecturers have done a fantastic job to assemble learning materials and put lessons online — our young people are missing that crucial social interaction that is an essential part of collective learning.
Isolated and lonely, with additional financial pressures, the pandemic has taken its toll upon students, forced to learn online.
And it is online that an increasing threat has emerged this year— companies targeting students, promising to help them with their studies.
These so-called “tutorial services’ pose as friendly help and advisory services. In return for a student’s cash, they offer to write their essay or dissertation for them.
Confidentiality is supposedly assured, as is the promise that this is not cheating, nor will they be caught.
These companies are better known in the Higher Education world as “Essay Mills”, and at the last count there were 881 operating in the UK, an increase of 13 a month since last year.
Two years ago, when 46 University Vice Chancellors wrote a joint letter demanding that Essay Mills be made illegal, it was estimated that around 115,000 students could be using them, though the figure was likely to be far higher.
Today, with the pandemic having forced students to study online, far away from their tutor’s oversight, this figure is likely to have escalated.
One site advertising its essay writing services even boasts that “to help you fight these tough conditions caused by the Coronavirus outbreak, we have reduced the price of our services by up to 50 percent – grab the offer now!”
And it’s not just websites that are targeting vulnerable students working from home — on one site, a chatbox appears, labelled “customer service”, asking “Hello, is there something I can help you with? Any assignment or essay?”
Chris Skidmore, MP [ ]
In my conversations with students, it seems this aggressive targeting of students is rife, not only on University Facebook pages and Whatsapp groups, but also with leaflets being distributed on campus, together with student influencers themselves being recruited to market these cheating sites.
What is equally worrying is that this is not only a university issue, it is becoming more and more frequent an occurrence in schools too.
These so-called “essay mills” aren’t only exploiting vulnerable students who are being driven towards them by worry over their studies.
They are also exploiting the consequences of using them — blackmailing students who use their services by then threatening to report them to their universities or their future employers if they do not pay them additional money.
They exploit the writers of the essays themselves, often poor graduates in Africa, who are forced to work twelve hours at a time writing essays, for just $1 an hour, for their work to then be sold on for between £100 to £300 an essay.
These companies form a part of a far darker world that we should not allow our students to fall prey to.
That is why, as a former Universities Minister, I’m taking action to make Essay Mills illegal in the UK.
I also believe that their advertisement should be banned.
Already Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and, most recently, Ireland, have passed laws making essay mills and other cheating services illegal.
In doing so, they have given their universities the power to make clear to their students how wrong using these services is.
We now need to follow their lead.
The current situation cannot continue.
At present, nothing prevents students in the UK from paying money to academic cheating sites that do nothing but massive damage to their education and prevent them from learning, passing off someone else’s work as their own.
Universities all recognise this massive problem needs to be tackled, but they need the government to step up and pass the laws needed to make academic online cheating sites illegal.
Too many students are being failed by these essay mills. It is time to send out a clear message and ban them for good.
• The Rt Hon Chris Skidmore MP is a Tudor historian and was Minister of State for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation from December 2018 to July 2019, and from September 2019 to February 2020.
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