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My Lords, this amendment raises an important issue that is central to the quality and reputation of higher education in the UK. Plagiarism in any form, including the use of custom essay-writing services, or essay mills, is not acceptable and the Government take this issue very seriously. That is why the Government asked the QAA to investigate the use of essay mills in the UK. Following the QAA’s publication on this issue in August 2016, the Minister, my honourable friend Jo Johnson, said:
“Plagiarism is not acceptable and, on this industrial scale, represents a clear threat to standards in our universities … we are looking closely at the recommendations in this report to see what further steps can be taken to tackle this scourge in our system”.
The Government thank the QAA for its work exploring this issue and continue to work closely with it to progress the options and recommendations put forward. As a first step to addressing the issue, the Government have already met with Universities UK and the NUS to discuss a co-ordinated response. Within the next few weeks, my honourable friend the Minister will be announcing a new initiative, working with the QAA, Universities UK, the NUS and HEFCE, to tackle this issue.
On the amendment specifically, although we share the general intent, we are keen to ensure that non-legislative methods have been as effective as they can be before resorting to creating new criminal offences. That is where the initiative mentioned comes in. If legislation does become necessary, we will need to take care to get it right. We have to be absolutely clear about what activity should be criminalised and what activity should remain legitimate. That requires evidence, discussion and consensus. We do not yet have that.
To that extent, it is crucial we get the wording of the offence right. In the amendment tabled, it is unclear who would be responsible for prosecuting and how they would demonstrate intention to give an “unfair advantage”. For example, it may be difficult to prove that a provider intended to give an unfair advantage, or that an advertiser knew that an unfair advantage would be bestowed, and there is a risk of capturing legitimate services such as study guides under the same umbrella definition. What is an “unfair advantage”? On one view, a student who is able to afford a tutor when others cannot obtains an unfair advantage. That is surely not what this amendment is trying to catch. But can we be sure that it does not, and where do we draw the line instead? These are not things that can, or should, be rushed when the result is a criminal record.
The effectiveness of a legislative offence operating as a deterrent will depend on our ability to execute successful prosecutions, and as such, we will need to be confident about these principles, as well as about who has the power to prosecute and how they will capture sufficient evidence. Rather than taking a premature legislative response to this issue, we believe it is best first to work with the sector to implement non-legislative approaches. We will of course monitor the effectiveness of this approach and we will certainly remain open to the future need for legislation if it proves necessary.
I hope I have reassured the noble Lord that the Government are committed to addressing this issue. Although the Government remain open to future options, as we do not believe that legislative action is the best response at this time, I ask that the amendment be withdrawn.