Amendment 77

Skills and Post-16 Education Bill [HL] - Committee (3rd Day) – in the House of Lords at 4:15 pm on 19th July 2021.

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Baroness Garden of Frognal:

Moved by Baroness Garden of Frognal

77: After Clause 25, insert the following new Clause—“Offence to provide or advertise cheating services(1) A person commits an offence if the person provides, offers to provide or arranges for a third person to provide an academic cheating service to a student enrolled with a further, higher or post-16 education provider on—(a) a course of study at such an education provider in the United Kingdom, or(b) an overseas course of study provided at such an education provider in the United Kingdom, and the academic cheating service is for commercial purposes.(2) A person commits an offence if the person advertises or causes an advertisement to be published, either directly to a student enrolled with a further, higher or post-16 education provider, or through an intermediary.”

Photo of Baroness Garden of Frognal Baroness Garden of Frognal Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords)

My Lords, I bring apologies from my noble friend Lord Storey, who is in foreign parts but assured us, before he went, that he would be able to get connectivity and come in and join us on this and other amendments. He self-evidently is not here, so my noble friend Lord Addington and I will try desperately hard to fill the gap he leaves.

I support this amendment in the name of my noble friend Lord Storey and the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock. He has been assiduous in his efforts to tackle cheating in all its forms. His research has resulted in a “Panorama” programme following foreign student colleges that collected large sums of money to accredit bogus students with qualifications, which were awarded by reputable awarding organisations that had taken their eye off the ball in their scrutiny of candidates and processes. It was horrifying to see how much money changed hands by falsifying student records and buying certificates with no shred of competence. We saw classes of foreign students who could barely say their names in English, with no language or professional ability, yet who, on payment, could obtain genuine certificates with utterly false credentials. Those awarding bodies have now been tasked and scrutinised, and had their processes significantly tightened.

This amendment is aimed at those who seek to part students from their money in return for validation that has no reality. Cheating has become easier in the technological age. It was more arduous when you had to go to a library and photocopy material—literally cut and paste—but there are those with money and very few brains who aspire to qualifications. It is in the interests of those of us who admire our education system that cheating is stopped, at all costs. If this is not already an offence, it should be. This amendment will ensure that those who seek to cheat in this way can be taken to task and it surely has a place in the Bill. I beg to move.

Photo of Baroness Neville-Rolfe Baroness Neville-Rolfe Chair, Built Environment Committee, Chair, Built Environment Committee

My Lords, I speak on the subject of cheating partly because I have a son who is an academic and I know what agonies this creates for conscientious tutors. I offer two insights. First, cheating at universities and elsewhere is made much easier by the prevalence of coursework, which means there could have been an increase during Covid, to add to our woes.

As the noble Baroness, Lady Garden of Frognal, rightly said, it is easier in the technological age. The safest thing is to base assessments on exams in person and, if that is not possible, to have tight turnaround times for papers, because that makes cheating harder. The penalties should also be clear—whether being chucked out of university or made to do another year—and whether they apply to essays, which are under examination with this amendment, or to exams only.

Secondly, it is an international problem. An amendment banning services in the UK, which this seeks to do, will just move these services overseas. It is an important issue and I look forward to hearing from the Minister about how it is best tackled. I very much thank those who have brought the amendment to the House today.

Photo of Lord Lucas Lord Lucas Conservative 4:30 pm, 19th July 2021

My Lords, these essay mills are getting ever more sophisticated and are employing in some cases quite high levels of artificial intelligence to disguise what they are creating based on existing sources so that the cheating software cannot find it. I suspect that there is no reasonable solution if we are to continue with a system where essays produced in unsupervised conditions count towards a qualification. However, there is some hope, and I encourage the Government to look down this avenue in the work that has been done, for instance, by FutureLearn on analysing the pattern of keystrokes made by a particular individual typing an essay and working on that essay while they are in the course of preparing it. That sort of analysis is very difficult to duplicate and defeat. If we use technology to defeat technology, we can again be confident about the quality of essays.

Photo of Lord Addington Lord Addington Liberal Democrat

My Lords, my noble friend—despite the fact that he has been defeated by the wonders of technology—here addresses one of the other problems we have. Something went from students who knew certain essays would come up in certain courses at certain times, and vaguely plagiarising them—that went on just about everywhere—to an industry that means students can gain a qualification. Continuous assessment is reckoned to be quite a good way of learning or of assessing somebody’s ability, or has been in many cases. That is particularly vulnerable to some of these services. The sums of money involved are considerable, because people are paying for it. Furthermore, a student who does this is then open to blackmail for the rest of their professional career. Their qualification, which is the way they make their living for the rest of their life, could be invalidated or they could have a black mark against them. They might not have to pay just a few hundred pounds but could end up paying tens of thousands over the course of their lifetime.

I hope that the Minister will give us a positive answer. My noble friend is quite assiduous on this—he has a Private Member’s Bill going through. If I may appeal to those who are planning government business, it might be a quicker and easier way to accept this amendment or one like it than to have to have an entire Bill go through Parliament. There is not much hope of that but let us try.

Can we find out what the Government are planning to do about this? Technical checking of every essay might be possible—I do not know the state of play of the technology—but everything will have to be entered to be assessed by it, and I am not sure how long that takes. We will have to look at this and at things such as dissertations, or studying by oneself, which are a traditional part of long-term studies in further and higher education. These cannot really be done in any other way than a person working independently, unless there is a lot more monitoring or a lot more time spent on it by staff.

We will have to deal with this problem, or at least learn to live with it and minimise its impact. I hope that the Minister can tell us that there is a coherent plan to at least display the dangers of blackmail and coercion that people are exposed to throughout the rest of an academic career. This is a real problem, and if we can solve it or at least make it slightly better now, surely we should.

Photo of Lord Faulkner of Worcester Lord Faulkner of Worcester Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords)

The noble Lord, Lord Adonis, has withdrawn from this group so I call the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock.

Photo of Baroness Sherlock Baroness Sherlock Shadow Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Garden, for stepping into the breach and introducing this amendment and thank all noble Lords who have spoken. I may try to fill in some of the gaps left by the absence of the noble Lord, Lord Storey. I should say at the start that we fully support the outlawing of cheating services.

The Minister needs to address three questions: is there a problem, is it getting worse, and what is the right policy response? I think we now all agree there is a problem. We discussed this recently at the Second Reading of the Private Member’s Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Storey. In responding to that debate, the Minister—the noble Lord, Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay—acknowledged the growing availability of cheating services and said that this

“puts vulnerable students at risk and threatens the reputation of our world-class higher education sector … 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.”

Yes, we have a problem. Is it growing? Again, yes, it is. The QAA believes there are now over 1,000 essay mills in operation.

In that debate, the noble Lord, Lord Parkinson, told me that he had not read the paper by Lancaster and Cotarlan published this year in the International Journal for Educational Integrity. I hope that the noble Baroness, Lady Berridge, has read it or that at least she has been given a summary in her brief. It cites the 2015 work by Ardid et al which found no difference in the results students got when they took exams in person or online, provided that both types of exams were supervised. But when students took an exam online and it was not supervised, they got higher marks. That raised the obvious question as to whether students were using contract cheating in online exams. Lancaster and Cotarlan took up the challenge raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Rolfe, and analysed how one website, Chegg, was used during the pandemic by students in five STEM subjects.

They found that students were using it to request answers to exam-style questions and that these could be put live and answered within the duration of an exam. The number of student requests posted for those five subjects increased by almost 200% between April and August last year compared with the same period the year before. Of course, that was exactly the time when many courses moved to being delivered and assessed online. They 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 it that 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 does not work. This week I did a search, and loads of them appeared. I visited the Chegg website today and it still says:

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

There is even a website which acts as a comparison site for essay mills. I went mystery shopping on one website before the Second Reading of the Private Member’s Bill, and last week I tried another one. This time round I priced up an undergraduate essay on Anselm’s ontological argument for the existence of God, with three sources and Chicago referencing. With a new customer’s discount, I could have had 750 words in just three hours for £72. A full 2,500-word essay could be mine in 12 hours for £193. I did not even have to subscribe to find that out.

The noble Lord, Lord Addington, is quite right: if I were a student and I succumbed to this, as well as risking my academic career, I could be putting myself at risk of being blackmailed. The HE blog has given examples of students who had problems either because they felt the quality of the work was not good enough or they got cold feet, and were told that if they did not pay the fee, and sometimes pay more money, the site would tell the university that they had used an essay mill.

We accept that we have a problem and that it is growing. What is the policy solution? In the past, Ministers have insisted that legislation was not needed, and they would get sector bodies to get tough and issue guidance and penalties. The noble Lord, Lord Parkinson, said that the Government have been working with the HE sector and tech companies but concluded:

“Despite that work, cheating services remain prevalent.”

That takes us to legislation. It is now three years since 46 vice-chancellors wrote a joint letter calling for these websites to be banned. Meanwhile, other countries have banned essay mills, including New Zealand, South Africa and, most recently, Australia and Ireland.

On 25 June, the noble Lord, Lord Parkinson, mentioned emerging evidence from Ireland and Australia which

“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”.—[Official Report, 25/6/21; cols. 536-37.]

Can the Minister tell the Committee why the Government do not think British students deserve the same protection from being preyed on as students in those countries? Contract cheating is a growing problem which puts students at risk and threatens academic integrity. If it keeps growing, it will start to disadvantage students who will not cheat, and that is a problem for all of us. We need to know that our doctors, engineers and lawyers have qualified based on their own merits, not on those of strangers on the internet.

So when will the Government act? If the Minister does not like this amendment, fine: she can bring her own back on Report. But if she does not, how long will we have to wait for another legislative opportunity to deal with a problem which even Ministers acknowledge is real and growing? I look forward to hearing her reply.

Photo of Baroness Berridge Baroness Berridge Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for International Trade) (Minister for Women), The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education

I begin by thanking the noble Baroness, Lady Garden, for moving Amendment 77 on behalf of the noble Lord, Lord Storey. It would make it a criminal offence to provide or advertise academic cheating services in connection with post-16 education. I pay tribute to the tenacity and detail with which the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, has given your Lordships examples of the situation, which the Government accept is a growing problem. The noble Lord, Lord Storey, is obviously to be commended for his unstinting efforts to clamp down on essay mills, where unscrupulous online operators write assignments and other pieces of work for students for financial gain.

The Government have consistently made it clear that using these services is unacceptable. Research indicates that cheating services are prevalent, and the evidence suggests that higher education is the area of greatest risk. This is despite the Government working closely with the higher education sector to clamp down on the cheating services, and we have worked with the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education, the National Union of Students and Universities UK to produce guidance for providers on how to combat contract cheating. On a specific point raised by several noble Lords, we have worked with the National Union of Students, which has also provided advice for students so that they are aware of the consequences of contract cheating, sending a clear message that these services are not legitimate.

The use of plagiarised assessments is, of course, unacceptable and, as my noble friend Lady Neville-Rolfe said, it devalues the hard work of those who succeed on their own merit, as well as potentially undermining the reputation of our world-class higher education sector.

As the noble Baroness, Lady Garden, will know, that is why the Government welcomed the principles set out in the Private Member’s Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Storey, the Higher Education Cheating Services Prohibition Bill, at its Second Reading, and we agree that we should put an end to the scourge of essay mills.

However, the noble Lord’s amendment would make the provision and advertising of cheating services to all post-16 further education and higher education a criminal offence. Although we support the principles behind the amendment, there is little evidence to suggest that cheating services are a problem in post-16 and further education providers, as they are for higher education. We are therefore of the view that this Bill is not the appropriate vehicle for this important policy.

To note the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Addington, the amendment lacks sufficient legal detail and precision to demonstrate how it would work in practice. We shall, however, be working with the noble Lord, Lord Storey, on his Bill, which covers much of the same ground. It is important that, when we legislate in this area, we legislate correctly and make clear the implications for those who use these services. Sometimes, that can be a response of support for vulnerable students; but, in certain situations, that will be a sanction. We need to make clear, as the amendment does not, what will be the penalties for either advertising or being a service that offers cheating services, or essay mills, and what sanction will follow. I therefore hope that the noble Baroness, Lady Garden, will feel comfortable in withdrawing the amendment.

Photo of Baroness Garden of Frognal Baroness Garden of Frognal Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords) 4:45 pm, 19th July 2021

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that positive reply, and those who supported the amendment, the noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Rolfe, and the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, for their contributions—and the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, not only for filling in the gaps but for her substantial research and powerful reasons for legislating on these matters. I come back to the point made by my noble friend Lord Addington about how cheating can completely blight your future career, making you open to blackmail and the like.

I sort of accept the reasons that the Minister gave for not accepting the amendment, particularly with her encouragement that my noble friend’s Bill may receive government backing, because I do think this is an incredibly important issue. We are at risk of undermining our higher education and further education systems if cheating continues at this incredible level. Meanwhile, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 77 withdrawn.

Photo of Lord Faulkner of Worcester Lord Faulkner of Worcester Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords)

We now come to the group beginning with Amendment 78. Anyone wishing to press this or anything else in this group to a Division must make that clear in debate.