Students are being warned that using quick-fix “essay mill” websites puts them at risk of being scammed out of hundreds of pounds, as well as failing their degree if they are caught cheating.
Experts have warned of a spike in websites taking students’ money in exchange for bespoke essays and then disappearing, not delivering work on time, or providing poor quality papers. The National Union of Students (NUS) said they prey on the vulnerabilities and anxieties of students to make money.
There are more than 100 essay-mill websites in operation in the UK, according to a report from the independent university regulator, the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA). They offer written-to-order essays, charging varying amounts from hundreds to thousands of pounds based on deadline, topic and length.
Sorana Vieru, the NUS vice-president for higher education, said they homed in on “students’ fears that their academic English and their referencing may not be good enough”. She added: “We would urge those who are struggling to seek support through their unions and universities rather than looking to a quick fix, and be aware that using these websites could cost not only money but jeopardise their qualifications.”
The NUS added that it was easy for these sites to “con” students.
Prof Thomas Lancaster, an associate dean at Staffordshire University and one of the UK’s leading experts on cheating, echoed these concerns. “There are horror stories out there about students who have paid for dissertations and essays that haven’t arrived, so they have nothing to hand in,” he said.
Lancaster added: “There are plenty of scams operating in the academic writing space and I’m sure that some people just set up essay writing services with the intention of closing them down without sending an order as soon as the money comes in.”
It comes as hundreds of thousands of students hand in final dissertations and essay projects this month. In the lead up to these deadlines many who have fallen victim to these fake sites have made desperate appeals online.
One student claimed their dissertation was due at the end of the month and the website that had promised to write it had been deactivated. “I had a dissertation purchase and I have lost all my information. The website doesn’t seem to exist and I am on a tough deadline to submit my work by end of this month,” they wrote on an essay scam website.
They added: “The websites are not accessible, neither are the email links they sent going through. I called PayPal, [and] they claim the account still exists. The telephone contact they have as well as what was sent to me as part of their email never goes through. Have these guys rebranded? Or have [I] been banned? Nothing seems to be coming out clear.”
Another student claimed the person they had paid £150 to write a 3,000-word essay for them had disappeared, leaving them with a tight deadline. They asked if any one else could help them, offering £200 but only when the work had been done. “Please contact me ASAP if you think you can help or if you have an offer,” they wrote.
These websites are now in their busiest period, with students handing in final-year projects and dissertations. The Guardian was able to access several dissertation-writing websites, many of which reported seasonal “price surges”. One website, which describes itself as a dissertation-writing service, said a dissertation would cost more this month and offered discounts in June and July. Another global website said it increased prices by 20% in April, but they had now fallen.
British institutions are currently free to set their own plagiarism policies. But the QAA recommended new laws to make it illegal to help students “commit acts of academic dishonesty for financial gain”. They suggested those in breach of this could be punishable with fines of up to £5,000.
Ministers announced a crackdown earlier this year, saying they constituted cheating. But three months on an amendment to the higher education bill to make selling essays illegal did not go through.
The Department for Education was unable to comment due to general election purdah rules. However, they sent a link to a statement released in February demanding universities and students create new sector guidance. They said this was expected to be made available for the beginning of the 2017-18 teaching year.
Simon Bullock of the QAA said: “The QAA is working with universities and student representatives on measures to identify and discourage the use of essay mills.”
Lancaster said students buying essays online were putting themselves in a risky situation as these sites “skirt around the law”. He added that people had “no comeback if what they pay for isn’t delivered or is of poor quality”.
He said he had also heard cases of students purchasing work and being blackmailed by sites. “They have been asked to send more money to avoid having their names handed over to their university.”
A spokesperson for the University of Bristol said: “To avoid any disciplinary procedures or being conned by fake sites, we urge students to seek support from lecturers, personal tutors and wellbeing services if they begin to feel overwhelmed. As a university we work with our students to guide them through the examination period and ensure they leave with the qualifications they have worked so hard towards.”
Ministers concerned about the growing scale of cheating at university have announced a crackdown on so-called “essay mill” websites that provide written-to-order papers for students to submit as part of their degrees.
Jo Johnson, the universities minister, has asked student bodies and institutions for guidance to help combat “contract plagiarism”, where tens of thousands of students are believed to be buying essays for hundreds of pounds a time.
A report by the independent university regulator last summer found that essay writing websites often advertise their services to students for a fee and many promote “plagiarism-free guarantees” or essays tested against plagiarism detection software.
According to the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA), there are now more than 100 essay mill websites in operation. The amount they charge is dependent on the complexity of the essay and tightness of deadline, ranging from several hundred pounds for a single essay to £6,750 for a PhD dissertation.
'It's not a victimless crime' – the murky business of buying academic essays
In Britain it is left to individual institutions to develop their own plagiarism policies. But in its research, the QAA recommended new laws to make it illegal to help students “commit acts of academic dishonesty for financial gain”, punishable with fines of up to £5,000. It suggested the UK look to New Zealand, where essay mills have been fined and their assets have been frozen.
The Guardian was on Monday able to access several websites that offered essays on most if not all degree subjects. Most sites required a name, email address and debit card details to purchase an essay, with no restriction on the area of study being requested.
On one site, buyessay.co.uk, students were required to enter the requested attainment level for the essay, the desired length and deadline as well as a description of the assignment. Most sites also asked the desired format of the essay, including line spaces and footnote style. The prices quoted to the Guardian varied from £36 for a two-page essay to £154 for 1,500 words.
The buyessay.co.uk site also carried a message saying use of the essay writing service did not constitute cheating.
The new guidance, expected to be available for the beginning of the 2017-18 teaching year, is to include tough penalties for those who use the websites and offer more information on the potential impact on students’ future careers.
Calling on universities to do more to crack down on contract plagiarism, Johnson said: “This form of cheating is unacceptable and every university should have strong policies and sanctions in place to detect and deal with it.”
Thomas Lancaster, an associate dean at Staffordshire University and one of the UK’s leading experts on essay cheating, said that while universities had anti-plagiarism software to detect copying of academic texts, they could not prevent the process of contract cheating, where students employ ghostwriters to complete new assignments.
“We think this is a substantial problem affecting universities, that students can go and pay other people to do their assignments for them,” he said.
Working in collaboration with Prof Robert Clarke of Birmingham City University, Lancaster identified at least 30,000 examples of students purchasing essays online.
“We’ve been looking at sites where students publicly post their request, but a lot of sites are hidden so that number is just a tiny proportion of all the work,” he said. “We’re confident there’s tens of millions of pounds of business going through essay mills sites every year. It’s big business.
“Advertising appears around university campuses, we observed people giving out business cards in car parks, people putting up flyers on lampposts, even sometimes getting their adverts into secure parts of university buildings.”
The sites are based all over the world, Lancaster said, and quite often the same company operates under a number of domains. “We can put legislation in place to prevent sites from operating from within the UK but they could just move overseas,” he said, adding that the focus could be placed on tackling UK-based advertising of the services on campuses, search engines and social media.
The QAA has been tasked with taking action against the online advertising of the services and to work with international agencies to tackle the problem.
Meanwhile, an amendment has been proposed by Lord Storey, co-chair of the committee on education, families and young people, to the higher education and research bill that would make it an offence to provide or advertise cheating services.
“It’s not illegal for sites to offer to write model essays, it’s not illegal for somebody to buy an essay, but of course if they buy an essay, hand it in, and get a degree they don’t deserve and use that degree to get a job, then there is some kind of fraudulent transaction going on there,” Lancaster said. “I do think universities should do more to tackle essay mills and work with students but universities also need support from the government and a legal framework, it’s a two-way street.”
The government’s move also comes a month after researchers at Swansea University recommended the state bring in tougher new regulations to impose fines on essay mills after concluding the 2006 Fraud Act was unlikely to be effective in tackling the issue, largely due to 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 blogpost.
“However, legal changes alone are not the answer to this problem. We need to ensure that assessments are rigorous and less open to completion by a third party ... we need to make sure it is preferable for students to ‘do the right thing’.”
Ian Kimber, QAA’s director of universities, quality enhancement and standards, said: “Essay mills are a major challenge for universities and colleges because, unlike other forms of cheating, the practice is notoriously difficult to detect.”
Dame Julia Goodfellow, president of Universities UK, emphasised that submitting work written by someone else constituted cheating, and said she would continue to work with QAA and the National Union of Students to update sector guidance in the area.
“Universities have severe penalties for students found to be submitting work that is not their own,” Goodfellow added. “Such academic misconduct is a breach of an institution’s disciplinary regulations and can result in students, in serious cases, being expelled from the university.”