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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:01 pm on 25th June 2021.

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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?