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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:51 pm on 25th June 2021.

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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.