With increasing numbers of A Level and university students turning to ‘essay mill’ websites to purchase written to-order assignments, the government is considering making ‘contract plagiarism’ a criminal offence.

Students cheating on their homework assignments is nothing new, it’s been going on since the first educational institutions began setting homework, but with the development of the ‘gig economy’ and the establishment of online businesses dedicated to servicing students who would rather pay for an assignment than write one themselves, the number of students submitting fraudulent assignments is reaching unprecedented levels.

In the early days of the internet, students would often share essays online, or sell their previously submitted assignments via student forums, with prices typically around £20. To combat students from different institutions identical essays, universities invested in plagiarism detection software, which successfully put an end to this method of cheating. However, ‘essay mill’ business which offer written-to-order essays are making it increasingly difficult for educational institutions to identify students who use these services, as Thomas Lancaster, associate dean at Staffordshire University, and an expert on essay cheating, explained – anti-plagiarism software is unable to detect where students employ ghostwriters to complete new assignments.

Businesses involved in the ‘essay mill’ industry are also confident of their ability to offer work which will not rouse suspicion, with the independent university regulator reporting that ‘essay mills’ often promote “plagiarism-free guarantees” and offer essays which have been tested against plagiarism detection software.

According to a recent report by universities watchdog the Quality Assurance Agency, there are now hundreds of ‘essay mills’ charging between £100, for a short essay of less than 1000 words, to £6,750, for a full PhD dissertation. Currently, there are no official figures to indicate how many students in the UK are using there services, but universities believe that tens of thousands students in higher education purchase essays online each year.

Educators are becoming concerned that this new trend could threaten the quality, and reputation of British universities. In response to these concerns Jo Johnson, the universities minister, has announced a crackdown on the ‘essay mill’ industry and has proposed making ‘contract plagiarism’ a criminal offence. If the ministers proposals are made law, university students caught submitting essays which were purchased online, will face fines and a criminal record.

Alongside punishing cheating students, the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) is also planning to challenge the online businesses offering essay writing services. Currently, it only takes a matter of seconds to discover a dozens of business offering to write essays for students. The Smart Writer, is an online business typical of many ‘essay mills’, and promises;

– Reliability: we never miss a deadline.
– Speed: we turn your work around fast.
– Know-how: we have many successful years of experience
– Originality: all our writing is guaranteed unique.
– British Writers: we never use writers from abroad.
– Communications: we believe close contact is the key.
– Lowest Pricing: our charges are very student friendly.
– Scope: we cover 68 subject areas.
– Confidentiality: we guarantee your privacy and anonymity.

Furthermore, testimonials on these websites clearly indicate that the students buying these essays are doing so with the intention of submitting them to their teachers, as these comments clarify – “So happy to know I don’t have to write my own papers anymore if I don’t want to. Honestly, these guys are professionals, and there is no way I’m going to slog through all that work when it’s so much easier to have a professional writing it for you.”

Tempting as these testimonials may appear, there remain serious reasons for students to avoid these temptations, as this excellent teacher’s blog explains;

Expensive: some websites can charge extremely high fees for their services or products and expensive does not always mean translate to good quality. On the internet, it is all too easy to end up paying way too much money for something that you did not really want or that failed to meet any of your expectations.

Not always as advertised: All too often, a website will advertise a specific product or service but fail to actually deliver. It is easy to make claims or promises on the internet without ever actually following through on them.

Not always the best quality: Even if the website does provide the service or product advertised; it still may not be worth your money. Just because a person is offering their services as tutor does not necessarily mean they actually know anything about writing essays.

These arguments against buying essays online are supported by the findings from a 2014 study by Ofqual which reported that the quality of written-to-order assignments was often substandard. In many cases, essays were poorly written, riddled with basic writing errors, and would receive poor or failing grades.

Given these concerns, it may be best that Jo Johnson’s proposals to crackdown on ‘essay mills’ be made policy sooner rather than later, to ensure educational standards in higher education are maintained, and university graduates are no longer able to take shortcuts which will ultimately diminish the rewards of higher education.

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