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.