With her essay deadline closing in, Rosie* knew that paying hundreds of pounds for a stranger to write her Master's assignment was a dangerous gamble. An ' essay mill ' soon returned a script riddled with errors, so she requested a refund. Then her troubles began.
The online writing company threatened to report her to university authorities, meaning almost certain expulsion, unless she paid £300. She paid it, then came another £300 demand. What started as an attempt to cheat had become a costly web of blackmail.
Essay mills have boomed during the coronavirus pandemic as degree courses have shifted online, with nearly 1,000 estimated to be in operation in the UK, up from 881 in October, and up to one in seven students globally thought to use them.
They litter search results on Google, boasting slick websites, "100 per cent original" and "plagiarism-free" essays written to order, and even doctorates. Fancy a "first-class" dissertation without lifting a finger? It's yours for £2,800.
Now Chris Skidmore, the former universities minister, is finally pushing to outlaw these firms. The MP introduced a private members’ bill to Parliament last week, with cross-party support, to bring the UK into line with parts of the United States, Australia, New Zealand and Ireland, where such companies are illegal.
He told MPs: "I heard stories of students now being recruited on campus as influencers, being paid to leaflet student halls with flyers offering essay-mill services; tales of students being blackmailed by these companies having paid for essays, with threats of being reported to their universities and future employers."
While extreme, Rosie's experience is not unique. Undergraduate student Simon* panicked minutes after purchasing an assignment and contacted the essay mill to cancel.
The firm refused and bombarded him with menacing emails threatening to contact his university, post the work online and sue him for a "serious academic act".
Both Rosie and Simon turned to Dr Daniel Sokol, a former academic and barrister specialising in academic misconduct cases at Alpha Academic Appeals. In both cases, from April 2020, Dr Sokol took over the correspondence with the essay mills and resolved the problem.
He has noticed that international students at British universities, who pay fees of up to £40,000, are particularly prone to using essay mills, forming the majority of his 'academic misconduct' clients.
"The students who confess to me that they've used them are often short on time, lack confidence, are under stress or in a state of panic, have language issues, and believe it's an easy way out of their predicament," he told The Telegraph .
"You go online and it's so quick and easy [to buy an essay]. The customer service, at least at the beginning, is often excellent. The companies promise stress-free essays in a matter of hours for relatively small sums of money.
“One theory is that students have less of a personal relationship with 2D tutors when learning online. Students may not feel they are letting their tutors down by cheating. The interaction is less personal.
“When I was in Oxford, students felt they had a duty towards their tutors and cheating would have felt like a serious and shameful breach of trust."
But banning the firms could just drive them underground. "I have no doubt that banning them will not eliminate this problem," Dr Sokol said, with the proliferating number of private tutors an easy loophole for students to keep buying assignments.
Efforts to address essay mills in recent years have focused on stifling their reach. The Advertising Standards Agency has ruled against three firms in recent years – UK Essays, Essay Writing Service UK and Oxbridge Essays – but The Telegraph found websites for all three remained the top of online search entries for essay assistance.
Some firms are even targeting overseas students via Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp before they even enrol, under the guise of "academic support services", Mr Skidmore said. Recruitment is another issue, with some graduates of top universities relying on essay mills for income in a bleak jobs market.
Researchers at Imperial College London recently found a surge in students receiving answers in real-time during online examinations, through the US-based homework site Chegg (a claim which the company disputes). Lawyers point to the fact that many sites aiding contract cheating are based abroad, an interconnectivity that has hampered previous attempts to legislate on the internet.
So what can be done? For Robin Jacobs , a barrister in higher education law at Sinclairs, universities must lead the way – not an overwhelmed justice system.
"I think it is symptomatic of deeper problems in higher education," he told The Telegraph . "Students [are] paying tens of thousands of pounds for what is essentially a distance learning course under house arrest… students who are getting a completely different experience from what they paid for seem to be getting little or nothing, so it does all tie in."
"Another problem is there is quite a lot of vagueness when it comes to what academic misconduct actually is," Mr Jacobs added. "A lot of universities get to create their own definitions." Plagiarism software has failed to keep up with the detection-evasion techniques of essay mills, so academics are left to make subjective judgements.
This confusion, coupled with lawyers being barred from accompanying students in many academic malpractice panels, has seen Dr Sokol deal with devastated students expelled after being falsely accused of cheating.
"You've got innocent students who are found guilty… these students are conveniently forgotten," he said. "I'm not convinced that most universities have sufficient training for their decision-makers to avoid miscarriages of justice."
Mr Skidmore's bill is backed by the National Union of Students, Damian Hinds, the former education secretary, and Robert Halfon, the Tory chair of the education select committee.
Vice-chancellors have previously called for new laws to ban “venal and exploitative” essay mills, while the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) watchdog warned last year the practice is now spreading to sixth formers.
"It seems the problem now has moved beyond simply being ‘here, buy our essay’," Mr Skidmore said. "The issue is students are also selling essays for £10 and they’re being sold on for £300 – there’s exploitation going on."
*Names have been changed
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