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Higher Education and Research Bill - Committee (6th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 9:15 pm on 25th January 2017.

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Photo of Lord Storey Lord Storey Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Education) 9:15 pm, 25th January 2017

My Lords, plagiarism is a form of cheating and an academic offence. “Contract cheating” is a particular type of plagiarism where a student commissions a third party to complete an assignment. They might even employ a ghost-writing tutor. The QAA says it poses a risk to the security of academic standards and the equitability of assessments, as well as reliability and validity. “Essay mills” produce assignments that are not completed under exam conditions, and other pieces of work such as coding assignments in computer science can be completed by a third party as well.

I knew nothing about this 18 months ago. It was not something I understood. Then a group of students from one of our redbrick universities made contact with me. They came to the House of Lords to talk about it. We sat out on the Terrace. They were genuinely upset that they saw this practice happening regularly among their fellow students. They said, “Why are we diligently doing our work when you can pay and you can cheat?”. As a result of them coming to see me, I wrote to the chief executive of the QAA, who kindly wrote back and said, “We don’t regard this as a particularly serious problem. The number of people we are talking about is minuscule”. I contacted him again and furnished him with quite an important file of evidence. He very kindly arranged to come and see me, and we talked it over—in quite robust terms. He then organised a private round-table discussion with a number of other academics. From that, a number of issues arose. I am very grateful to them for taking that initiative.

So how many students are we talking about? According to the QAA, about 17,000 students—about 0.7%—get caught cheating each year. Remember, those are the ones who are caught. The data do not show how many students plagiarised. Another report commissioned in 2014 showed that 22% of students reported having paid someone to complete their assignment. As I said, this type of cheating is referred to as contract cheating, a specific type of plagiarism where a student commissions a work produced by a third party for a fee.

How does this happen? Different approaches are taken and different sites can be used. The more established sites will have a bank of people who have previously written for them and essay commissions will go to those people, with the essay mill acting merely as an intermediary. Other sites go instead to an online freelance writer: the work will be reverse-auctioned and any writer registered on those sites will be able to bid for the work.

In a recent publication, Professor Phil Newton and Christopher Lang looked at the operational aspects in some depth. They found that turnaround times for commissioned essays are very small: between a day— 25% of those analysed—and 24 days. The average was five days. Most—80%—were fulfilled in the specified time. For every fulfilled request on a freelancer-type site, another 10 people bid for the work, suggesting significant spare capacity in the market. The prices range from £15 for law—a master’s, a 3,000-word dissertation —to £6,750 for a PhD or a 100,000-word dissertation, with a seven-day deadline.

I was talking to some students only yesterday who told me that people even approach them on their campus and say, “We can get you a 2:1. We can write your essay for you. We can write your dissertation for you”. These people actually approached them on the university campus.

What about the students themselves? Well, it must be noted that some students do not plagiarise intentionally. A disproportionate number of students who are caught cheating, I am sorry to say, are foreign students. We had the debate earlier on foreign students. Language competence is one of the main reasons for them cheating. There are also sometimes cultural difficulties. Interestingly, according to the Times investigation, foreign students are four times more likely to cheat. Universities have been criticised for enrolling foreign students with poor command of the English language because they pay higher fees. There is then real pressure on those students to complete their assignments.

What should we do about it? My amendment is based on what has happened in New Zealand, where it was quite a serious problem. As a result of them making the practice illegal, the problem has significantly improved.

I am minded to quote the QAA, which said that the way forward can be described in three words: “Education. Detection. Deterrence”. The QAA goes on to say that at present it has no legal or regulatory powers to take action against students quickly for plagiarism, using essay mills, websites or ghost writers. We see this as academic fraud. We need to take action now.

We are in our sixth day of Committee, and we have heard so many eloquent speeches about the importance of higher education, the incredible work our universities and students do and how important it is to maintain that quality. Well, maintaining that quality means making sure that academic fraud does not happen, and that all students are on a level playing field. I beg to move.