Amendment 53

Part of Skills and Post-16 Education Bill [HL] - Report (2nd Day) (Continued) – in the House of Lords at 7:00 pm on 21 October 2021.

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Photo of Lord Storey Lord Storey Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Education) 7:00, 21 October 2021

My Lords, I rise to speak on the issue of essay mills and contract cheating. I thank the Minister for tabling this amendment. There have been four Private Members’ Bills, three of them from me. The first time, I drew number 2, and then there was then a general election. I then drew number 50, which never got debated, and then I drew number 3—and we have the Private Member’s Bill up and running. I thank Chris Skidmore for putting one in the Commons as well.

More than 45 vice-chancellors and heads of UK higher education organisations wrote to the Secretary of State in 2018. The support and briefings of the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education have been fantastic. I also pay tribute to two professors who started this whole thing off before I got involved: Professor Newton and Professor Draper at Swansea University.

When I looked at a particular independent college in Greenwich and saw the effects of contract cheating and essay mills, I realised that this was a very serious problem that we faced not just in further education but in higher education and, increasingly, in schools as well, although this amendment does not deal with that. Some 15% of our students admit to using contract cheating services. Oxbridge Essays claims that it has produced, for cheating, 70,000 essays. This is not just about students being drawn into this situation—many of them are worried about their well-being, their mental state et cetera—it is also about the academic credibility of our higher education system. If we allowed this cancer to grow, it will affect our universities and colleges.

I pay tribute to the Minister’s legal team, which has nailed this properly. I showed the amendment to a number of people, and, as you can imagine, I got some quite important replies. They said that the proposed strict liability offence—whereby there is no need to prove intent—is really important because it means that essay mills will not be able to rely on disclaimers, although they do have a due diligence defence. Getting strict liability offences through Parliament is extremely rare, but it is absolutely critical to this offence having any impact.

I would also like in passing to congratulate the Minister’s press department or PR department. The Minister very kindly emailed me her intended amendment and it said, “Strictly embargoed for four days”. I thought after the third day I would tip off the Times Higher Education Supplement or FE Weekly so I might get a little bit of credit, and they said “Oh, we got it four days ago”. The Government obviously have an eye on publicity as well.

I thank the Government for this amendment. Students, vice-chancellors and universities up and down the country will be very grateful. This is not the end of it, in the sense that we have to make sure that we look at Wales and Scotland, because that is important, and we will at some stage need to look at secondary education as well. When the Minister winds up, will she consider saying that if breaches occur, we will look at how we can tighten up the situation? I am sure that these essay mills, which form a £1 billion industry, will be looking at ways around this, and we need to see whether we can find ways to stop breaches happening in future. I hope the House does not mind, but I am going to depart.