On October 5, 2021, a new chapter was added to the United Kingdom (U.K.) Parliament’s Skills and Post Education Bill. If enacted, the bill would make it a criminal offense to provide for or arrange, for financial gain, services to any students studying at an institution in England providing education to students older than 16 (“post-16 education”). The bill would also make it an offense to advertise these services. The bill defines “services” as “completing all or part of an assignment on behalf of a student.” The offenses would be punishable with a fine.
These services, known as “essay mills,” have been described by Member of Parliament Chris Skidmore as “a rot that infects the very discipline of learning and has the potential to damage academic integrity beyond repair.” By banning these services, the government aims to “safeguard the academic integrity and standards of post-16 and higher education in England and protect students from falling prey to the deceptive marketing techniques of contract cheating services.”
Despite the government calling on private industry to restrict advertising and methods of payments for these essay mills, and the fact that students can face severe academic penalties for using them, the number of essay mills operating in the U.K. has steadily increased over the past few years, rising from 635 in June 2018 to 932 in February 2021. In 2018 it was estimated that one in seven students had paid for an essay and that both students and YouTubers were being hired as influencers to promote essay mills. The cost of a standard 2,000-word essay varies from 3 pounds to 800 pounds, with the most prominent essay mill charging 279 pounds (approximately US$4, $1,085, and $380, respectively) for an essay delivered within a week. In addition, students have reportedly been blackmailed by essay mills and threatened with being exposed to their universities or employers after they have used these services.
Essay mills claim they aim to help “increase a student’s understanding of a topic,” while educational professionals note that these companies aggressively market their services to students toward the end of the semester, close to the deadline when papers should be submitted, when students are feeling pressure to meet deadlines.
The government is continuing to work alongside the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education, Universities UK, and the National Union of Students to help produce guidance for both educational institutions on how to tackle essay mills and educate students to ensure they are aware of the consequences of cheating.
This is not the first time legislation to prohibit essay mills from operating in England has been proposed. On February 10, 2021, a private member’s bill titled the Essay Mills (Prohibition) Bill was introduced in the House of Commons, and before that, on January 30, 2020, another private member’s bill titled Higher Education Cheating Services Prohibition Bill had been introduced in the House of Lords. Both failed to progress through Parliament, which is not unusual for private member’s bills, which frequently aim to highlight an issue.
The Skills and Post Education Bill also contains provisions that are not related to essay mills. The bill aims to tackle shortages in employment in areas such as engineering, clean energy, and manufacturing by requiring schools, when providing career advice, to give as much weight to technical education, such as apprenticeships, as to traditional academic education.
The bill would also enable sixth-form colleges (for students age 16–18) that have a religious faith designation to operate as a 16–19 Academy and reclaim nonbusiness value-added tax (VAT) on any goods or services they buy.