A Private Members Bill was introduced by Lord Storey in May with the purpose of eradicating essay mills, or ‘contract cheating’.
Private Members’ bills are public bills introduced by MPs and Lords who are not government ministers. There are various ways they can be introduced but one is as a result of a ballot. The names of Members applying for a bill are drawn in a ballot held on the second sitting Thursday of a parliamentary session. Normally, the first seven ballot bills are most likely to get a day’s debate. Ballot bills have the best chance of becoming law, as they get priority for the limited amount of debating time available (UK Parliament).
Lord Storey, a Liberal Democrat, was one MP who found himself successful in the ballot this time around (coming third) and consequently he introduced his Higher Education Cheating Services Prohibition Bill [HL] on 24 May 2021. The bill is Lord Storey’s fourth on the issue, with previous versions having been introduced in the 2019–21, 2019 and 2017–19 sessions. The Bill has now had its second reading – none of the earlier bills got to this stage.
The proposed bill would make it an offence to provide or advertise cheating services to students enrolled at higher education providers in England. He explains:
The academic integrity of our universities is the cornerstone of UK higher education.
Over the last ten years we have seen the growth of ‘essay mill’ companies. These provide students with ready-made essays and dissertations which for a fee can be downloaded and then submitted as their own work. We have also seen the growth of contract cheating services which enable students to pay somebody to write assignments for them.
Essay mills and contract cheating have become big business with the number of students using these cheating services increasing every year. Universities have turned to the use of computer programmes which can identify plagiarism to try and stop cheating. The companies prey on the vulnerability of students, particularly those from overseas. Most students who do their own academic work feel angry and annoyed by companies which help students cheat.
The problem is not confined to the UK, and other countries (including Ireland, New Zealand and the USA) have now passed legislation to curtail their use.
Overview of the bill’s provisions
The bill has one substantive clause. This specifies that a person would commit an offence if they both provide and receive, or reasonably expect to receive, a payment, financial reward or other financial benefit for providing a higher education ‘cheating’ service. The bill defines this as a service provided to a student of a higher education provider in England that consists of:
- completing (in whole or in part) on behalf of the student an assignment, examination or any other work that the student is required to complete personally as part of a higher education course without authorisation from the person who imposed the requirement, such that the assignment, examination or other work could not reasonably be considered that of the student; or
- arranging for another person to complete (in whole or in part) on behalf of the student an assignment, examination or any other work that the student is required to complete personally as part of a higher education course without authorisation from the person who imposed the requirement, such that the assignment, examination or other work could not reasonably be considered that of the student.
A person would also commit a criminal offence if they advertised or published, without reasonable excuse, an advertisement for such a service. However, they would not be guilty of an offence for doing any of the above if they could demonstrate they would not be able to know the work could be used in such a way. The bill states:
A person shall not be guilty of an offence […] if they demonstrate that they did not know and could not with reasonable diligence know that the service might or would be used by a student enrolled on a higher education course to complete an assignment, examination or other work that the student is required to undertake personally as part of that course without authorisation from the person who imposed the requirement.
Many essay writing companies state that you should use the work as an example to inspire your own writing, rather than hand it in. One of the biggest UK essays companies, All Answers (ukessays.com) states in its fair use policy,
“As tempting as it may be to submit this model custom written essay, dissertation, or assignment as your own, this isn’t how our service is designed to be used. To benefit from any of our model answer services, you should take the model answer we provide as a basis for your own further research, and build on the knowledge within it to create your own, 100% original work.”
All Answers go to some lengths to tell students how to use the work “properly”, which they say is similar to a model answer or example essay from a Q & A book. They don’t serve customers who say they are going to cheat and they don’t take orders from customers who say they’ve previously handed the work in. Any student who hints to the staff that they intend to hand the work in is turned away. Would this satisfy the requirements of ‘reasonable diligence’? (I think this would be much harder to argue for their post-graduate services such as high-level Masters Dissertations and PhDs however, which require original research and thought). Note that the reasonable diligence defence applies to Sections 1(2), (2) and (3) so may be used in relation to the advertising of such services.
The other issue for me is the definition of ‘cheating services’. Where will services such as essay marking, proofreading or editing services? These vary between providers – generally a tutor provides feedback and suggestions on the essay draft before it is handed in, although sometimes the tutor will make changes to the work. If the marking service simply offers feedback and suggestions, it would not seem to come under the definition of “completing (in whole or in part)” an assignment; but it would give the student a substantial advantage, identifying their errors and omissions. Having used such a service, it is conceivable that a student could ‘up’ their grade from, say, a 2:2 to a 2:1 or 1st.
What of Q & A sites? For example, what if the student asks a “tutor” for the answer to a problem question and they then use this answer without incorporating any of the tutor’s own words? What if they ask for a list of bullet points or a skeleton structure to ensure they cover all of the most important points? There are such a vast range of services on the web and whilst the simplicity of the proposed Bill may have been welcomed, it may also leave a lot of grey areas.
Currently details of the proposed consequences are limited. A person committing an offence would be liable to a fine on both summary conviction (for example, in a magistrates’ court) and conviction on indictment (in the crown court). In cases where a body corporate, for example a company, was found guilty of an offence, the bill provides that officers or those claiming to act in such a capacity would also be liable for punishment (House of Lords Library (16th June 2021).
The legislation is not unexpected. Aside from the fact that Lord Storey has brought the issue to Parliament previously, a growing number of countries have already banned contract cheating – Australia in September 2020, New Zealand and Ireland in 2019 – and he states that other European countries are in the process of drafting legislation. Some US states also have legislation aimed at deterring custom essay writing services.
As noted above, this is Lord Storey’s fourth attempt at introducing such legislation. Previously he had proposed an amendment to the Higher Education and Research Act at both Committee and Report stage. After discussions he agreed to withdraw the amendment and agreed with the Government that they should try to deal with the issue by voluntary means.
During the Second Reading of the current Bill, Lord Storey noted of a previous attempt,
“working with the NUS and the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education, work was undertaken to encourage students not to use essay mills. The QAA established an academic integrity working group, a student’s charter was written, and the Advertising Standards Authority was proactive in removing adverts by these companies, particularly on the London Underground.”
But he continues,
“Sadly, far from curbing the problem, essay mills have continued to grow and flourish and … operate in industrial proportions.”
It was then suggested by Lord Addington that Lord Storey’s amendment should be inserted into the current Skills and Post-16 Education Bill, after Clause 25. Hence on the 19th July, Amendment 77 was moved by Baroness Garden, proposing the same. Some of the comments made during this debate are of note.
In the absence of Lord Storey, Baroness Neville-Rolfe raised an alternative solution – one I have proposed on this blog previously – to move to an exam-only assessment model.
However, circumstances such as the Covid-19 outbreak or simply geographical challenges may mean that such exams are not supervised. As a result of the Covid-19 outbreak Imperial College London put 280 sixth-year medicine undergraduates through two online open book exams last year, and a number of other institutions were forced to follow suit.
On this point, Baroness Sherlock cited a paper by Thomas Lancaster & Codrin Cotarlan which found where exams were online and unsupervised, students scored higher, suggesting cheating. The authors analysed how students were using websites such as Chegg to request answers to exam-style questions and that these could be put live and answered within the duration of an exam.
They concluded that:
“students are using Chegg for assessment and exam help frequently and in a way that is not considered permissible by universities.”
So perhaps the exam-only approach is no longer viable.
Returning to Baroness Neville-Rolfe’s comments, she suggested that the penalties needed to be clear — “whether being chucked out of university or made to do another year—and whether they apply to essays, which are under examination with this amendment, or to exams only.” Until now any student penalties have been a matter for the individual university and I agree with this approach, rather than introducing consequences through legislation. Every case of plagiarism is a little different and there can be extenuating circumstances. It seems inappropriate to criminalise students in every circumstance. Further, consider the MyMaster essay-cheating scandal in Australia involving 1,000 students from 16 universities were involved, and whether mass criminalisation is appropriate, not to mention the associated time and costs to staff and students (the QAA report considers this further).
The Baroness further pointed out that the problem of essay mills is international – “an amendment banning services in the UK, which this seeks to do, will just move these services overseas.” This is a valid point. Although, as noted above, other countries have banned the services, many essay companies are located in countries such as Pakistan where no such legislation exists or (to my knowledge) is being contemplated.
Baroness Berridge disagreed that the amendment was appropriate, for two reasons. First, the amendment would make the provision and advertising of cheating services to all post-16 further education and higher education a criminal offence. She notes that there is little evidence to suggest that cheating services are a problem in post-16 and further education providers, as they are for higher education.
The Baroness therefore stated, “We are therefore of the view that this Bill is not the appropriate vehicle for this important policy.”
Secondly she noted: “the amendment lacks sufficient legal detail and precision to demonstrate how it would work in practice.” She continued, “We need to make clear, as the amendment does not, what will be the penalties for either advertising or being a service that offers cheating services, or essay mills, and what sanction will follow.”
Following her comments, Baroness Garden withdrew the amendment.
Whilst the Bill has enjoyed plenty of support in principle, an amendment to the current Skills and Post-16 Education Bill, after Clause 25, looks unlikely. Therefore, having completed its second reading on 25th June, the Bill now goes to the committee stage – a line by line examination. However, this is yet to be scheduled. Given the past comments regarding the need to provide more detail, it would seem like this Bill is unlikely to be passed in its current form and it may be some time before we see any change to the law.