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

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

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Photo of Lord Storey Lord Storey Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Education) 2:40 pm, 25th June 2021

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.