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UK: Tougher penalties for cheating students and the websites that help them to

Plagiarism is a growing threat to U.K.'s higher education sector. Image via Shutterstock.

UK ministers are declaring a clampdown on plagiarism and have set their cross hairs both on the students who plagiarise and the websites (i.e. “essay mills”) that help them.

On Tuesday, Universities and Science Minister Jo Johnson called for tough new penalties for university students who use these essay mills – websites that sell customised and written-to-order essays that students can submit as part of their degree. Additionally, students are to be educated on the negative consequences on their future if they are caught cheating.

He also asked for student bodies and institutions for guidance to help combat “contract plagiarism”, where tens of thousands of UK students are reportedly buying essays for hundreds of pounds per piece, The Guardian reported.

As for the websites, the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) has been tasked to take action against the essay mills’ online advertising and to work with international agencies to deal with this cheating epidemic.

“Essay mill websites threaten to undermine the high-quality reputation of a UK degree so it is vital that the sector works together to address this in a consistent and robust way,” the minister said.

In response, Universities UK’s President Dame Julia Goodfellow said universities already take plagiarism “extremely seriously” and consider it a breach of an “institution’s disciplinary regulations”, which can even cause a student to be “expelled from the university”. The body’s work with universities also shows they are getting better at detecting and dealing with such forms of cheating.

However, Goodfellow supported Johnson’s call to engage with students, saying: “With information now so readily available online, it has become increasingly important to engage with students from day-one to underline the implications of cheating and how it can be avoided”.

She also advised anxious and stressed students to seek their university’s support services to help with coursework and deadlines.

“Submitting work written by someone else is cheating and devalues the efforts of students who work hard to achieve their degrees. ,” President for Universities UK said.

Last year, in a report commissioned by the government, the QAA exposed the growth of essay mill websites in the UK, of which more than 100 are in operation.

The report, Plagiarism in Higher Education – Custom essay writing services: an exploration and next steps for the UK higher education sector, discovered that such websites would advertise themselves with “plagiarism-free guarantees” – for a price that can go up to thousands of pounds, students can buy essays that can pass plagiarism detection software.

In one example, a 100,000-word English Literature PhD dissertation can cost up to £6,750 (US$8,435) if a student needed it within seven days. Standards can also be varied – British Essay Writers website was found offering work to be done in three different standards: 2:2, 2:1 and first class.

“This form of cheating is unacceptable and every university should have strong policies and sanctions in place to detect and deal with it,” Johnson said.

This crackdown also follows a recent research by Swansea University which recommended that the UK government update laws to impose fines on essay mills. Their research had concluded that the 2006 Fraud Act was unlikely to deal with the epidemic effectively, mostly due to the disclaimers and caveats used by the companies.

“We would hope that a legal approach would at least act as a deterrent to would-be users of these services and serve as a lever to change behaviour,” Michael Draper and Philip Newton, co-authors of the report, wrote in a blog post.

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