Why essay mills should be banned in Wales as well as England
Huw Evans, senior lecturer at Cardiff Metropolitan University
The UK Government has announced that ‘essay mills’ are to be made illegal in England. This article argues that something similar should be done in Wales.
An ‘essay mill’ refers to an enterprise from which a person can buy an original commissioned work such as an essay to meet the buyer’s specific requirements (for example, to meet criteria concerning content and word count). So, in an academic context, a student who buys work this way can then submit it and dishonestly pass it off as their own original work.
Submission of work in this way will amount to unfair practice and, if proved, will lead to sanctions which, in extremis, can mean a person is disqualified from completing a qualification.
It is standard practice when submitting academic assessments for the work to be submitted through software (such as Turnitin) to check the work for similarity with previously submitted work. Although not perfect, the software is generally effective and if it identifies unacknowledged previously published work, this can provide the basis for an allegation of unfair practice.
But where work has been directly commissioned by a student, the software is useless because the work has not been previously ‘published’.
This is not to say that a case cannot be established against a student for submitting work in this way – for example, where this is a reasonable inference to explain the difference between that work and work accepted to be to their own work – but this can be evidentially problematic.
If not stopping it altogether, making the practice illegal can provide an obvious incentive to reducing it.
For a whole host of reasons, integrity in a system of qualifications is core if the public is to have confidence in it. Therefore, the UK Government’s announcement to make the practice illegal in England is, in principle, welcome.
It may surprise some though that the practice is not already illegal. It has been described as academic fraud but legally it does not amount to fraud. One of the ways that fraud can be committed under the Fraud Act 2006 is fraud by dishonest representation whereby a person makes a gain (section 2). Passing off someone else’s work as a person’s own work is a dishonest representation to make a gain but unfortunately, the Fraud Act does not bite as ‘gain’ is tied to direct financial gain.
In this case, the direct gain is not financial – for example, if the gain is obtaining a pass mark – although, of course, it might indirectly lead to financial gain in the long run through obtaining a (better) qualification.
Actual fraud and this form of unfair academic practice are comparable as both involve a calculated and dishonest effort by a person to unfairly obtain a material and significant benefit. It cannot be reasonably argued that fraud should not be criminalised. It is surely not unreasonable to argue that ‘essay mill’ activity should similarly be criminalised.
An attempt was made to make the practice illegal in early 2021 by Chris Skidmore MP, who introduced a private members’ bill, the Essay Mills (Prohibition) Bill. The Bill did not proceed but in making its announcement the UK Government has obviously been persuaded to take things forward in England.
And this will be done by introducing an amendment to the Skills and Post-16 Education Bill currently before the UK Parliament. The reason why the proposed legislation will not apply to Wales is, presumably, because education is devolved.
If it is thought necessary that the change in the law is needed in England, on the face of it, it is also necessary for Wales. Although devolved, the post-16 education systems of England and Wales have more structural similarities than differences. Something that has been identified as affecting the academic integrity of the system in England is surely also relevant to that integrity in Wales.
Academic integrity is not a party-political matter and consideration of bringing something similar forward in Wales should, if it is not already being so, be immediately considered by the Welsh Government. It is assumed also that this would be uncontentious and receive cross-party and public support.
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Thanks for this elegant exposition. It seems to me that the most efficient way to criminalise mills might be an amendment to the Fraud Act. Is that feasible? I suppose it would apply in Wales.
How about if employers were to require of job applicants that their degrees be honestly earned? Would an essay mill customer’s post-graduation employment income then be a monetary gain obtained by misrepresentation?
It’s a neat idea. Huw Evans’ article suggests much the same thing and, from what he wrote, it seems that a lot might turn on exactly what the Fraud Act says. Isn’t the person selling the essay making direct financial gain amounting to fraud? (enforcement difficulty alert!) If I can find the time I’m going to read the Act and I’ll ask a lawyer friend to think about this.
p.s. always better to use existing law than make up new ones.
The Terms of sale of these essays are closely warded with caveats to protect the writers who will argue they were only supplying an example.
Amending the Fraud Act is one possible way in principle. The main issue as I see it – and something that is alluded to below – is that, as well as this, it would catch other practices and this might make law makers nervous. I suspect that the UK Government will come forward with something specific and which does not have broader application. It will be interesting to se what the amendment looks like. And If that amendment is acceptable to the Welsh government, it could always ask the UK Government to extend application of the legislation’s effect to include… Read more »
Better to ammend the Fraud act to include non financial gain.
That would have a lot of interesting side-affects, among which would be to give the electorate a stick to beat lying political candidates with. Which is why it won’t happen.
Our society has a strong thread of dishonesty running through it. That is not to say that cheating is O.K but so many people achieve short and longer term goals by some forms of misrepresentation that it becomes difficult to draw lines that succeed in elimination. Probably the best result would be to contain such problem behaviours.
We have a Prime Minister who was sacked for blatant lying, so it seems a bit pointless to be chasing students who find a way to get a better grade with less work. They can spend more time in the pub learning some useful life skills. There are already people out there willing to write essays like they did in the good old days! I did read The Essays of Elia, about 50 years ago. I can honestly say that given the choice of reading the collection again, or watching the box set of Gavin and Stacey, I would choose… Read more »
Slippery slopes all round, then
Fine in principal but in practice this could be very difficult to enforce. A lecturer who knows the quality of a student’s work from previous submissions may suspect that an essay is, to put it bluntly, far too good to have come from the student but proving this could be almost impossible. Also, lecturers are under a lot of pressure from managers to pass work when they know damn well that it has been plagiarised – and yes I have seen this.