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Clamp Down on Contract Cheating in Higher Education

View profile for Laura Giggs
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A recent news article by the BBC ‘Essay cheat companies face university ban’ discusses how new guidance for universities requires them to clamp down on so-called ‘essay mills’; businesses allowing students to purchase essays and coursework. In fact, earlier this year, The Telegraph reported that more than 20,000 students in British universities and paying up to £6,750 for these bespoke essays.

The Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) conducted an investigation last year which led to a report outlining that hundreds of businesses are contracting with students to produce work for them which they pass off as their own.  The investigation also suggested that academic staff and lecturers may be among those being paid by ‘essay mill’ companies to produce the work. 

Following their investigation, on 9 October 2017 QAA released guidelines for universities Contracting to Cheat in Higher Education – How to Address Contract Cheating, the Use of Third-Party Services and Essay Mills’. The guidelines consider four main areas to address to tackle contract cheating; education, prevention, detection, and regulations/policies. A summary of the key recommendations in each area can be found below;


QAA’s guidance now asks that universities encourage a positive focus on academic integrity and be clear about the measures they use to detect cheating. For example, making clear to students that plagiarism can give rise to the student not receiving their qualification.

 The ‘education’ heading not only covers information and support for students, but also training and information for staff. Key action points include ensuring staff are kept up to date with academic regulations, and providing training on the design and use of assessment methods.


In order to try to minimise the risk of contract cheating, the guidance recommends that universities should consider using a mixture of assessment methods, such as written and oral, presentations, portfolios etc. They also highlight that universities should block essay mill websites on campus, and disrupt opportunities for these businesses to advertise on campus.


QAA’s guidance also considers how universities can best detect forms of contract cheating. Proposed examples include interviewing the students after their work has been assessed, and investing in up-to-date detection software which uses stylometry to detect changes in a student’s personal writing style. Whistleblowing policies should also be considered; are the accuser, and the accused, being protected correctly?


Finally, QAA highlight that the most effective way to manage contract cheating is to look at university’s policies, procedure and decisions. There should be consistency in their approaches to contract cheating, and should ensure that all academics are working to the same values and definitions.  

Our specialist education lawyers are can assist both students accused of plagiarism, and universities tackling problems such as the above. If you need specialist education law advice, please do not hesitate to contact us on 02920 291 704.