A new study has found that online “essay mills” threaten academic integrity and exploitation as vulnerable students purchase written work which they then pass off as their own.
Researchers based at the Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research found hundreds of examples of online adverts targeting students in what is known as ‘contract cheating’.
This is where suppliers offer to write assignments for around £5 per 250 words.
Co-authors of the study, Criminal Grades? Contract cheating and student exploitation in Higher Education, said this practice posed a risk to academic standards, integrity and exploitation and threatened universities and students alike.
By researching 200 online adverts and profiles on Gumtree and Fiverr and 100 essay mill websites, they found the sales were “predatory in nature” and targeted vulnerable students.
Co-author Richard Kjellgren, of the University of Stirling, confirmed this activity has been seen in Scotland.
He said previous studies have shown fraudulent providers blackmailing students by threatening to inform university staff of them purchasing content unless they receive more money.
The report said stress and pressure were common reasons behind why students were being driven to outsource assignments.
“Less formal supervision arrangements, partly due to Covid, and increasing levels of anxiety and uncertainty may also have contributed to potentially increase contract cheating and other forms of academic misconduct,” Mr Kjellgren added.
The research was unable to quantify the extent of contract cheating and how widespread experiences of blackmail and extortion were in Scotland as they did not survey students.
The illicit nature of engaging with essay mills also made measuring the scale of the issue difficult, the report said.
Despite this, attempts have been made to pass legislation both in the UK and Scottish Parliaments to prevent contract cheating.
Two Private Member’s Bills have previously been introduced to the House of Commons and House of Lords to prohibit the operation and advertising of essay mills.
This would, however, fail to cover devolved nations.
It is understood the Scottish Government is now considering legislation that will ensure contract cheating services will not be driven out of England into neighbouring jurisdictions such as Scotland.
Mr Kjellgren added: “While proposed legal changes may be of symbolic value to demonstrate the seriousness of the issue, the transnational and transient nature of contract cheating means that such laws are likely to have limited effect.
“There is a need to consider how assignments can be designed to reduce opportunities for outsourcing, and educators must also be made aware of the potential indicators of contract cheating in student submissions.
“Most importantly, students involved in academic integrity processes may experience a significant amount of stress and anxiety, and it is crucial to create a supportive and fair process.”
The report was also co-authored by Niall Hamilton-Smith, of the University of Stirling, and Alistair Fraser, of the University of Glasgow.
A Scottish Government spokesman said: “Clearly any form of misconduct at university is unacceptable.
“It is up to individual universities to take forward the appropriate disciplinary action and we encourage them to put robust measures in place to guard against cheating.
“The Scottish Government is considering this issue.”