Students are being incentivized to cheat at university by commercial essay mills offering buy-one-get-one-free deals, loyalty schemes and high street-style cashback offers, a conference has been told.
Experts warned of a growing “normalization” of cheating in higher education, with the shift to online assessment that began during the pandemic making it easier and more common for students to seek outside help.
They also warned about the growing availability of AI essay writing tools, which are becoming increasingly sophisticated, offering students yet more opportunities for cheating to try to boost their grades.
The government is introducing legislation to ban essay mills and advertising for them, but experts fear there will be few prosecutions, as most are based overseas and therefore beyond the reach of the legislation. It will only apply to England initially, with some limited application in Wales.
The Westminster Higher Education Forum virtual conference on Tuesday heard that essay mills – which sell essays or material written to a student’s commission – were now using comparison websites as part of an increasing marketisation of their services.
Michael Draper, professor in legal education at the University of Swansea and an expert on academic integrity and cheating, said: “The last count I think there were over a thousand sites on one comparison site, with more arriving each month. That is a huge number.
“Increasing commercial pressures of the type that we normally find from supermarkets are impacting on students. So a lot of these sites provide, for example, buy-one-get-one-free or loyalty schemes, or in some cases, I’ve seen cashback.”
When students try to withdraw, they can become the victims of blackmail, targeted by fake legal letters. The conference was told this was “organized crime”, with reports that some essay material is provided by authors in sub-Saharan Africa who are also open to exploitation.
Draper said students whose school education had been disrupted by the pandemic would be particularly vulnerable as they moved into higher education. “Students increasingly are reporting the pressure they’re feeling, but also impostor syndrome. They just don’t feel ready for the challenges of higher education, learning and assessment and we are going to need to address that,” he said.
He also warned that students were unwittingly giving away their own valuable essay material by using free online tools to check spelling or grammar, which can then find its way on to the web where it can be picked up and used – or sold by someone else.
Other students have tried to turn a profit themselves by selling their own work, Draper said. “I’ve also seen some ‘entrepreneurial’ activity by students basically selling direct to other students their own material from previous levels. So students themselves are jumping on to this normalization bandwagon.”
The conference was told that collusion, where students work together to complete an assessment that should be taken independently, has become a serious problem in the past couple of years, particularly with the shift of assessment online, which is likely to have played into grade inflation .
Tom Yates, director of corporate affairs at the Quality Assurance Agency, the independent body that checks on standards and quality in UK higher education, welcomed the new legislation on essay mills and said it would result in a change in the dynamic that exists for students.
“Essentially, students will know that if they use an essay mill they will be engaging with a criminal entity, and we can’t claim that’s been the case hitherto, and that should remove the temptation for many,” he said.