essay mills
The UK government is discussing a ban on essay mills, which is being backed by industry leaders. Students engage these services for help with assignments and exams. Source: Wojtek Radwanski/AFP

The UK government will soon be cracking down on contract cheating services following the introduction of an Essay Mills (Prohibition) Bill in the House of Commons this week. Former universities Member of Parliament (MP) Chris Skidmore wants to ban these essay mills, explaining the “corrosive effects” of this practice after detailed discussions with academics and higher education bodies.

Skidmore identified 932 essay mills in the UK, up from 881 back in October 2020. “Each week that passes during the COVID pandemic, the situation is only growing worse,” he said. “As students have been forced to study remotely from home, away from on-campus welfare and support, taking their studies and exams online, they are increasingly becoming prey to essay mills, whose number has increased dramatically as they seek to take advantage of the desperate situation many students face.”

essay mills

Remote learners are more vulnerable to essay mills as the latter targets anxious students. Source: Charlotte May/Pexels

This was seen as early as June 2020, when UK’s Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education came out with guidance on “how to address essay mills and contract cheating.” It called for universities to better support remote-learning students with personal tutoring and academic mentoring.

Skidmore also highlighted how students were being recruited as influencers for essay-writing companies. Some were being paid to distribute flyers on campus advertising such services. Students who have used these services have also been blackmailed to continue using the service.

“If the UK can demonstrate it’s willing to bring in legislation also to end essay mills, we could make this part of a wider international campaign to close this loophole. Most people would assume this kind of service should be illegal in that it actively damages a student’s ability to learn independently and successfully,” Skidmore said.

Even services not marketed as essay mills are vulnerable to misuse. Recent research from Imperial College London showed a 196% increase in the number of requests to US homework support site Chegg since the pandemic began. Students were using its services to cheat on online exams for computer science, mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, physics, and chemistry.

“Custom writing services increase the prevalence of contract cheating, thereby diminishing the significance of higher education degrees and jeopardising the reputations of universities and colleges,” said Gill Rowell, education manager of academic integrity and assessment solutions provider Turnitin. He explained how essay mills use “clever marketing tactics” to target anxious, vulnerable students — a phenomenon that has been exacerbated during the pandemic. Certain unscrupulous parties have even put out targeted social media ads offering special “coronavirus discounts.”

Besides Turnitin, this effort has received the support of the Universities UK, the National Union of Students, digital education infrastructure provider JISC, and numerous UK academics. MPs from both parties expressed support for the new bill. The second reading and debate are expected in the coming week, after which the extent of this crackdown will be confirmed.