Are academic staff helping students cheat?

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A new government-backed report is expected to find that academic staff across the UK are involved in so-called ‘essay mills’, companies that offer academic essays and other works in exchange for money.

An issue already known to exist amongst students who would rather pay than perform, an inquiry has been commissioned by ministers concerned that British universities themselves may be implicated in the problem which undermines the integrity of academic institutions.

The report by the Quality Assurance Agency is expected to find that lecturers and other academic staff across the country may be paid by ‘essay mill’ companies to write students’ work. The chief executive of the QAA, Douglas Blackstock, has asserted that these companies prey on vulnerable students and academics.

In a report by the Sunday Telegraph, he claimed that “these are hard-pressed research assistants or lecturers, topping up their earnings. Many companies claim they get genuine academics to write their material. To make their businesses viable, they need to attract people who know enough about the subject.”

The Office for Students has warned the removal of powers to award degrees from institutions which continually ignore these activities.

The Office for Students (OfS), the Government’s new regulator in the field, has considered this type of activity, whether between academics and students in the same university or otherwise, as cheating. It has warned the removal of powers to award degrees from institutions which continually ignore these activities. The OfS is to publish a range of new conditions for registration, which may include a clause compelling universities to outline that aiding students to commit academic offences will deserve disciplinary action.

The usage of these ‘essay mill’ sites has dramatically increased over recent years, with some charging over £6,500 for a postgraduate dissertation. The Sunday Telegraph reported earlier this year that over 20,000 students across the UK are using this method to get by at university. The QAA has raised concerns of the practice becoming “rife” amongst students in higher education, as well as suggesting its presence in sixth forms.

Such works produced through so-called “contract cheating” – when a student pays an academic to write their work – is likely to fall through sophisticated anti-plagiarism software, as the academic piece in question has not previously been published, making it difficult for examiners to spot it.

The guidance from the QAA was welcomed by Universities minister Jo Johnson, who said he expected the OFS to “ensure that the sector implements strong policies and sanctions to address this important issue in the most robust way possible”.

A Newcastle University spokesperson said: “This type of activity constitutes misconduct and would be dealt with under the University’s disciplinary procedure. There is no evidence of such activity at Newcastle University.”

Last modified: 24th October 2017

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