Higher Education Cheating Services Prohibition Bill [HL] - Second Reading

– in the House of Lords at 2:40 pm on 25th June 2021.

Alert me about debates like this

Lord Storey:

Moved by Lord Storey

That the Bill be now read a second time.

Photo of Lord Storey Lord Storey Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Education)

My Lords, the academic integrity of our universities, and indeed our whole education provision, is important not only for the reputation of those institutions but for the students themselves.

Contract cheating is when a student pays someone to write an essay for them. Thanks to the internet, we now have thousands of so-called essay mills that offer these services and make them easily available. These services advertise themselves widely, making use of social media services and slick websites to sell their product. This academic cheating industry is worth hundreds of millions of pounds, and more and more students are being drawn into its clutches. We see the use of so-called influencers and celebrities on social media, creating the impression that it is cool or all right to use these essay mills and to cheat. The cheating industry is now operating at an industrial scale.

During the passage of the Higher Education and Research Act the problem was beginning to appear, and I put down a similar amendment in Committee and on Report. After discussions I agreed to withdraw the amendment and agreed with the Government that we should try to deal with the issue by voluntary means. So, working with the NUS and the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education, work was undertaken to encourage students not to use essay mills. The QAA established an academic integrity working group—which, by the way, supports this Bill—a student’s charter was written, and the Advertising Standards Authority was proactive in removing adverts by these companies, particularly on the London Underground.

At the time of the Bill’s passage, the Government gave an assurance to the House that they would look at introducing legislation if voluntary means were not successful in curbing the problem. Sadly, far from curbing the problem, essay mills have continued to grow and flourish and, as I said a few minutes ago, they operate in industrial proportions. Indeed, the Conservative Party included taking action on this in their manifesto at the last general election—is that not called a manifesto pledge?

The problem is not just confined to the UK; it operates worldwide. An increasing number of countries are taking action through legislation, including New Zealand, Australia, Ireland and a number of states in the USA, and a number of European countries are preparing legislation as well.

There is another insidious side to essay mills. The Greenwich School of Management and other colleges were paying agents to recruit young people, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds and often unemployed, to take up degree courses. The agents were paid a fixed sum of money for every young person they signed up to the course. To entice these young people on to the course, they would tell them not to worry about the academic assignments—they would be provided by an essay mill which would do the assignments for them. The agents got their money, the college got its fees, the students got a loan which was higher than a jobseeker’s allowance, the university that validated the degrees got a fee, and the Government could show that a higher number of students from disadvantaged backgrounds were going into higher education. The trouble was that a very large number of young people took the loan and left at the end of the first year. The drop-out rate was phenomenal and the pass rate for those remaining was very low.

Surprisingly, nobody picked this up, whether it was the QAA or the validating university. It was down to the BBC’s “Panorama” to highlight this scam in its programme on academic cheating. Eventually, the Greenwich School of Management closed down, which was very sad for those staff and students who were not involved and lost their jobs. Another private college highlighted in the programme, Grafton College, also closed down. I have to tell your Lordships that this practice is still continuing. I hope that the Minister might meet me to discuss the problem, as I have evidence of other colleges engaging in such practice.

At the beginning of my speech, I said that the academic integrity of our universities is very important. I want to end by saying that this amendment is also important for the overwhelming number of students who do not cheat but carry out their academic studies with the hard work and rigour that we would expect. It is not fair on them that we should allow cheating to continue to grow.

I also want to put on the Hansard record my praise for the Quality Assurance Agency for setting up the academic integrity working group, and particularly to Gareth Crossman; for Professor Phil Newton and Professor Michael Draper at Swansea University for the pioneering work and research that they have carried out; and for Chris Skidmore in the other place, who had a similar Private Member’s Bill which ran out of parliamentary time when a general election was called. I also had a very supportive email from the noble Viscount, Lord Hanworth, who highlighted his own experiences as an examination officer of how cheating occurred. I beg to move.

Photo of Baroness Gardner of Parkes Baroness Gardner of Parkes Conservative 2:47 pm, 25th June 2021

My Lords, I commend this Bill for its intent to stop third parties from completing someone else’s higher education assessments for a fee, or even advertising their services to do so, and thereby preventing students seeking out such services. They are the equivalent to a drugs cheat winning the Olympics and are grossly unfair on other pupils. I have three areas on which I would appreciate the Minister’s comments.

First, is there sufficient clarity as to what is a higher education establishment? This is not defined in the Bill, nor is it clear in what other legislation it may be defined.

Secondly, why does the Bill not cover A-level students, who often have dissertations to write as part of their courses and may be tempted to use such services?

Thirdly, we have heard many stories, particularly in lockdown, of family members or friends doing a student’s work, which is then passed off as that student’s work. Why does the Bill not cover the provision of such services, even if unpaid, as surely the intent is to ensure that the students do their own work and do not use another person to do this?

Photo of Lord Addington Lord Addington Liberal Democrat 2:49 pm, 25th June 2021

My Lords, my noble friend Lord Storey—I am not saying this just because he is my noble friend—has introduced more or less a perfectly delivered Private Member’s Bill. He has identified a problem and, in a short document, given a solution that addresses it. The noble Baroness, Lady Gardner of Parkes, might well be right that it could go further than higher education, but that would destroy the fact that it is a nice, short Bill that we can see.

There is an easier way to do this and, once again, my noble friend’s name is on it: in the current skills Bill, stick in his amendment after Clause 25. That might be the best reason the Government can give for not accepting this now.

The principle behind this, just to make it clear, is not the initial trivial one that “I struggled through my dissertation. These little—insert whatever expletives you like—of today should damn well do the same”. It is because some of these qualifications are professional; they may even require somebody to go on to take a job that has a responsibility for somebody’s life. They should know what they are doing and should have passed the qualification. It could be a matter of public safety.

There is also the fact that our university education system is supposed to be where you are intellectually tested and encouraged to go on to new ground; you are encouraged to push yourself and to open up your mind to see what is there. But you might go to university and discover that half the people on your course are not taking this step—and it can be quite a worrying step sometimes, causing people to ask, “How bright am I? Am I bright enough to do this? Should I take that little chance? Should I push that argument?” It is being undermined by this activity.

The internet has almost made this inevitable. Let us face it, there was always an essay going around on certain subjects and topics which you could have copied, even in the stone ages of the photocopier, when I took my degree. But it is the level at which it is available now that we worry about. I hope the Government say yes to this Bill or the amendment, or make sure that something achieves the same thing, in a short timeframe, because this is wrong. We have the opportunity to change it. I hope we will hear how that is happening.

Photo of Baroness Deech Baroness Deech Crossbench 2:51 pm, 25th June 2021

My Lords, I declare an interest as the former and first independent adjudicator for higher education, dealing with student complaints from all universities. I am well aware that the Bill deals with a serious problem that could threaten the reputation and integrity of our universities, and I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Storey, for bringing it forward. For once, the virtuous got lucky in the ballot.

Cheating on an industrial scale with essays provided as if ordered from Amazon is a blot on standards and higher education. We must not risk students emerging who are not properly qualified, as the previous speaker said. It is a grave problem and one of considerable reach. Check out “write an essay for me” on Google and you will be presented with a wealth of resources. This widespread cheating is an indication of the commercialisation of some universities, and the sense of entitlement that students feel, now that nearly everybody can get a place and the fees are so high. As it was once expressed to me by a student: “I paid my fees; I went to the classes; I am entitled to a second.” Obviously the Covid restrictions on face-to-face teaching in our universities must have made the temptations and opportunities for cheating much greater.

I am therefore convinced that we need this Bill. It has difficulties of enforcement and interpretation, no doubt: one needs to distinguish between the essay provided for the student to submit and the legitimate aid to study. In law, in my youth, it was the Nutshell series, which so many of us committed to memory.

The Bill is well-crafted because it introduces strict liability. Conviction will not depend, as it did in earlier Bills, on the state of mind of the provider of essays but on the fact of advertising them. The burden of proof shifts to the provider. The student is not criminalised; the provider is, with the deterrent of high fines. The provider would not be guilty if it could not know that the student would use assistance provided to cheat, so if a student uses his or her friend’s notes, that would not be caught by this Bill, nor would assistance provided by family or friends, which may well be a major source of too much help. It is likely that many friends and family might be deterred by the realisation that certain types of help are being criminalised. This Bill is probably an improvement on the cheating laws in New Zealand and some 20 American states where, sadly, cheating still goes on despite legislation.

Existing laws are inadequate. The Fraud Act proceedings are too cumbersome. It is hard to imagine the universities affected calling the police. A case would take so long that the student would have graduated by then and, given that one remains innocent until proven guilty, they would probably claim to be able to graduate. The essay mill might even sue the suspect student for breach of contract, the student having undertaken to use the work provided only for reference. A student might even be open to blackmail by the essay provider if Fraud Act criminal principles applied. That is why this specially designed Bill is a much better remedy.

Making essay mills illegal would make marketing claims that they are a legitimate business unsustainable and would likely act as a disincentive to students inclined to use them. We should welcome this Bill as a tailored tool for the improvement of higher education.

Photo of Lord Bhatia Lord Bhatia Non-affiliated 2:55 pm, 25th June 2021

[Inaudible]—how many students use “essay mill” or other third-party contract cheating services. The Government’s response was that the bespoke nature of paid-for assignments

“can make it difficult for providers to detect that it is not the student’s own work.”

Research has indicated that the use by students of essay mills and contract cheating services appears to have increased in recent years. Minister Chris Skidmore said there were

“at least 932 sites in operation in the UK”.—[Official Report, Commons, 10/2/21; col. 349.]

In September 2018, more than 40 university vice-chancellors wrote to the Government calling for legislation to target essay mill companies:

“Legislation will not be a magic bullet; it is, however, a vital part of the broader package of measures. Legislation would, amongst other advantages, shut-down UK-based essay mills; prevent the advertising of their services near campuses and in public places such as the London Underground; enable the removal of essay mills from search engine findings and prevent UK-based companies from hosting online advertisements for essay mills.”

Despite NUS guidance, the creation of an Academic Integrity Advisory Group, and the introduction of new generation plagiarism detection software in universities, the use of essay mills did not appear to be declining. The paper argued that legislation was therefore needed to—I emphasise—criminalise the practice in the UK. Does the Minister agree?

Photo of Baroness Benjamin Baroness Benjamin Liberal Democrat 2:57 pm, 25th June 2021

My Lords, I support my noble friend Lord Storey, who I know is extremely committed to this Bill. I commend him on his determination to push it through.

There is so much pressure on young people in schools, as well as colleges and universities, to succeed and to get top grades. The strain and pressure can sometimes be too much. Some students feel that the only way to cope is to use so-called essay-writing services to enhance their chance of higher grades. Shamefully, there are those out there who will take advantage of these young people and offer a solution they find hard to resist. This is why the Bill is so important: to stop unscrupulous people taking advantage of vulnerable students.

I was the chancellor of the University of Exeter. I used to tell the graduates to act with morality, integrity and honesty and to be the person others can trust. I know that the university, under the leadership of Vice-Chancellor Sir Steve Smith, put support in place during my time as chancellor to assist any student who felt pressured.

Universities UK also supports the Bill. It says it has called for essay-writing services

“to be made illegal and we continue to work together with government, the Quality Assurance Agency … and other higher education bodies to tackle their use.

All universities have codes of conduct that include severe penalties for students found to be submitting work that is not their own. 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.

Universities have become increasingly experienced at dealing with such issues and are engaging with students from day-one to underline the implications of cheating and how it can be avoided.

University support services are also there to help vulnerable students struggling with anxiety and stress around coursework and deadlines.”

Universities UK has an ongoing programme of work focused on ensuring that quality and standards in higher education remain high and employers’ confidence in the system is maintained.

The Quality Assurance Agency has now launched its Academic Integrity Charter, signed by 150 UK higher education providers, to protect and promote academic integrity and take action against cheating. Despite all these actions and policies being in place, these organisations all support this Bill, so I hope that the Government will too, and will join forces with them and support my noble friend Lord Storey’s Bill to put measures in place to help young people not to be tempted to cheat, but to be that person others can trust.

Photo of Baroness Sherlock Baroness Sherlock Shadow Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow Spokesperson (Education) 3:01 pm, 25th June 2021

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Storey, for introducing the Bill and explaining it, and all noble Lords who have spoken. We fully support the outlawing of cheating services.

The QAA’s latest guidance says that there is now evidence that contract cheating is widespread and it believes that there are well in excess of 1,000 essay mills in operation. It seems that universities are catching only a tiny percentage of contract cheats—it is hard to detect bespoke work. Has the Minister read the paper by Lancaster and Cotarlan published this year in the International Journal for Educational Integrity? They built on the 2015 work by Ardid et al, which found no difference in the results students received when taking exams in person or online, provided they were supervised, but that when students took an exam online and it was not supervised, they got higher marks. That raised the question of whether students were using contract cheating in online exams.

Lancaster and Cotarlan looked at the situation during the pandemic. They examined how one website, Chegg, was used by students in five STEM subjects. The results showed that

“students are using Chegg to request exam style questions” and

“contract cheating requests can be put live and answered within the short duration of an examination.”

The number of student requests posted for these five subjects increased by 196% between April and August last year, compared with the same period the previous year. That, of course, was the time when many courses moved to being delivered and assessed online. Lancaster and Cotarlan conclude that

“students are using Chegg for assessment and exam help frequently and in a way that is not considered permissible by universities.”

In 2016, the QAA said that it would approach the main search engine companies and ask them not to accept adverts for essay mills and to block them from search engines. That clearly did not work: I did a search this week and loads appeared. I visited the Chegg website and it boasts:

“Ask an expert anytime. Take a photo of your question and get an answer in as little as 30 minutes.”

I then found a website which acts as a comparison site for essay mills. I clicked through to one of the sites it listed and found a simple form where a student can specify what they want to buy, the level, title and nature of the work, how long it should be, how many sources are needed and even their chosen referencing system.

I priced up a piece of undergraduate-level writing on “Augustine and the problem of evil” with three sources and Chicago-style referencing. I could have had a crisp 750 words in three hours for £89. A full 2,500-word essay would take 12 hours and cost £239. If I could wait two weeks, the price dropped to £137. I did not even have to subscribe to find this out. Obviously, I did not buy it—I have my degree—but if I were a student and I succumbed to this, as well as risking my career, I could put myself at risk of being blackmailed. An article on the HE blog Wonkhe reported examples of this. If students changed their minds or were not satisfied with the papers, they were refused refunds and the companies threatened to tell their university that they had used an essay mill.

It is now three years since 46 vice-chancellors wrote a joint letter calling for these websites to be banned—a call which, as we have heard, has the support of the major bodies in higher education—but nothing happened, and there is now a strong case that the problem is significant and growing. In the past, Minsters said that legislation was not needed and they would get sector bodies to issue guidance with tough penalties. We now have QAA guidance, but no formal penalties. Institutions may sanction individual students, but where is the action against those who make a living out of inciting students to cheat? Ministers have in the past focused on prevention, but the QAA’s latest guidance stresses that prevention can go only so far. The first edition of its guidance on the subject talked about designing cheating out of assessment, but in the latest version it concedes

“This is misleading, and could lead to complacency.”

Other countries have banned essay mills, so can the Minister tell the House why the Government do not think British students deserve the same protection from being preyed on as students in other countries? Contract cheating is a growing problem that puts students at risk and threatens academic integrity. It is a problem for all of us: I do not want my asthma treated by a doctor who got someone else to write their papers on respiratory medicine. Would the Minister like to drive across a bridge built by an engineer who cheated in her final exams? I do not think so. When will the Government act?

Photo of Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip) 3:06 pm, 25th June 2021

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Storey, on securing time for a Second Reading of his Bill. I know this is not the first time he has tried to bring forward legislation in this area, and I applaud his long-standing interest in combatting the scourge of cheating services. The Government are also grateful for his continued work with the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education’s academic integrity advisory group on this important issue.

I am also grateful to other noble Lords who have spoken this afternoon. Although only a few people have taken part, I know that this is a matter of interest across your Lordships’ House—the noble Lord, Lord Storey, mentioned the noble Viscount, Lord Hanworth, as one example. There is also great interest in another place, where my right honourable friend Chris Skidmore introduced a Bill last Session. I am sure the noble Lord, Lord Storey, has seen Mr Skidmore’s article in the Times today expressing his support for his work and for the Bill.

Her Majesty’s Government welcome the Bill and sympathise with the issues it highlights. As the noble Lord noted, it is a government manifesto commitment to improve the quality and standards of higher education, which includes upholding academic integrity. The growing availability of cheating services, which, as noble Lords have noted, often use sophisticated and insidious online advertising, puts vulnerable students at risk and threatens the reputation of our world-class higher education sector.

As noble Lords have powerfully expressed, it is reprehensible for essay mill companies to profit from a dishonest business that exploits young people’s anxiety and can undermine our world-class institutions. In some cases, the consequences can be widespread and long-lasting, for example, as the noble Lord, Lord Addington, pointed out, where it can lead to graduates entering a profession in which they have not demonstrated competence to practise. I concur with the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, that I would not want to cross a bridge that had been designed by an incorrectly qualified engineer. She is also right to highlight the threat of blackmail of the students who use these services. People should graduate from university having learned to apply their knowledge and skills to a high and genuine standard. Circumventing that not only is immoral, as the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, said, but devalues the hard work of those who have succeeded on their own merit.

The Government have consistently made it clear that using these services is unacceptable, and we have worked with the sector to clamp down on them. We are clear that a multifaceted, collaborative approach is required to tackle this growing and global problem. Since 2017 in particular, the Government have been working with the sector on a series of actions to deal with cheating services. We challenged companies from the tech sector to identify how anti-cheating software can tackle the growth of essay mills, and we have worked alongside the QAA, Universities UK and the National Union of Students to produce guidance for providers and students. Despite that work, cheating services remain prevalent. I have not read the paper that the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, cited, but she is right that the QAA reports an increase in the number of academic writing sites in operation, with nearly 1,000 websites now listed on one particular access site.

It is clear that there is a strong case for supporting institutions to address this matter robustly. We have much sympathy with the noble Lord’s aims through his Bill and would welcome further discussion with him about it. I am also happy to meet to talk about the specific concerns he raised about ongoing abuse in this area.

Some of the Bill’s provisions need careful attention. My noble friend Lady Gardner of Parkes mentioned just a couple when she raised the question of the definition of “higher education providers” and “provision of services”, and we would welcome the opportunity to discuss those with the noble Lord, but I appreciate that he has brought forward the Bill in the spirit of seeking to find a solution to the problem, which concerns noble Lords from right across the House. It has the potential, particularly as part of a wider approach, to reduce the number of essay mills in operation. It would also send a clear sign to students and the companies themselves that this activity is illegal.

My noble friend Lady Gardner of Parkes asked whether it was right to focus solely on higher education. We think that at present we need to target where there is clear evidence of a problem, and the evidence suggests that higher education is the area of highest risk.

Some noble Lords mentioned the international action that has been taken. Similar legislation has been introduced in several countries, including the Republic of Ireland in 2019 and Australia last year. Emerging evidence in both those jurisdictions suggests that those laws are deterring essay mills from providing services to students, and regulators there have reported that having the legislation has provided them with more tools to engage students, higher education providers and cheating services, and that it has given them additional routes to tackle the problem.

I again thank the noble Lord, Lord Storey, for his work in bringing the Bill forward and allowing your Lordships’ House the opportunity to consider these matters again today. It is an important and timely Bill that needs to be considered carefully to maximise its effectiveness but, alongside a continued and collaborative effort with the sector to deter, detect and address contract cheating, it is one that could enable us to face the problem head-on.

Photo of Lord Storey Lord Storey Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Education) 3:12 pm, 25th June 2021

My Lords, I thank all Members who have spoken and the Minister for his supportive and constructive words. I have to say to the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, that there may not be an engineer who cheated on having built a bridge, but there are sadly cases of engineers who falsified their qualifications and were building bridges, but that is another issue for some other time.

My noble friend Lady Benjamin is absolutely right: this is also about supporting students who may have mental health problems or have got themselves into a state where they do not want to let their parents or their friends down and are lured into this, so the supportive networks that universities provide are really important.

I think the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, summed it up when she said that this is about the reputation and integrity of our universities and we should protect that at all costs.

Bill read a second time and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.

House adjourned at 3.14 pm.