New legislation banning essay mills can be a turning point in the wider fight against education fraud if the sector works collaboratively to promote academic integrity, writes Jayne Rowley
I was delighted to hear that the government has heeded calls from Jisc and across the higher education sector to make essay mills illegal in England. While currently these fraudsters are able to operate in plain sight as they sit just this side of the law, new legislation will change that.
An amendment to the Skills and Post-16 Education Bill - currently working its way through parliament - will finally make it a criminal offence to 'provide, arrange or advertise…cheating services for financial gain to students taking a qualification at any institution in England providing post-16 education, including universities'.
Jisc has been an active supporter of the campaign to ban essay-writing services for some time.
Stakeholders from across the sector came together to form the UK Academic Integrity Advisory Group convened by the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) to coordinate efforts across government, education providers, students and sector agencies. An Academic Integrity Charter was launched in October 2020. To date, 176 providers have signed up.
In August, we published new guidance with QAA warning universities to be vigilant against an emerging cyber security threat from essay mills.
Fraudsters will look for ways around the new laws. They may rebrand, reinventing themselves as 'personal tutoring' services. Legislation must prepare for this.
Criminals behind the platforms are attempting to dupe students and cash in by hacking into university websites and placing content for their own ends that appears to be legitimate and aligns with university services.
This indicates the lengths these contract cheating sites will go to for a profit and I suspect despite legislation, this won't be the end of them.
For many years our Hedd fraud team has been campaigning against degree fraud. We have worked with the National Fraud Intelligence Bureau (NFIB) and other law enforcement agencies to shut down bogus universities and fake certificate vendors, only to see some of them reappear under a different guise.
Once essay mills are illegal, the NFIB should be able to work in a similar way, closing websites offering essay-writing services. Jisc should have the power to block them from being accessed on campus IT systems through our central Janet Network.
Yet we know from experience that fraudsters will look for ways around the new laws. They may rebrand, reinventing themselves as 'personal tutoring' services. Legislation must prepare for this and have scope to cover it.
Fundamentally, we have a duty of care to protect vulnerable young people and the investment made by genuine students.
Download the HEDD tooklit for HE providers
Advice and guidance on degree fraud for providers
It's important that the higher education sector works collaboratively to take positive action to promote academic integrity and best practice. Ties with allies' overseas are also necessary as we don't face these challenges alone.
There's no doubt that despite all of the 'what ifs', the ban marks a turning point in our much bigger fight against education fraud. It is the missing link in the chain and now collaboratively, we can go after all of the higher education fraudsters.
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