The government has called on universities to crackdown on online “essay mills” that are threatening the “high quality reputation” of UK degrees.
The Telegraph reported that the Department for Education is currently debating new punishments for academic cheating and plagiarism, including fines, expulsion and even criminal sanctions.
Last month, the newspaper revealed that more than 20,000 British university students are currently using these essay writing services - websites that charge almost £90,000 to write essays and dissertations on students’ behalf.
Universities minister Jo Johnson has also demanded stricter punishments for students caught using them.
“This form of cheating is unacceptable and every university should have strong policies and sanctions in place to detect and deal with it,” Johnson said.
“Essay mill websites threaten to undermine the high quality reputation of a UK degree so it is vital that the sector works together to address this in a consistent and robust way.”
The Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) is also set to tackle the online advertising of these services.
It can be difficult for universities to detect when students pay for original essays as they are not caught by plagiarism software - unlike traditional methods of cheating.
Research from the QAA found more than 100 essay mill websites in operation in the UK.
Charging from around £7.99 for an essay worth a 2:2 mark up to almost £88,000 for a 250-page PhD dissertation, the websites claim they have “world-class writers” working for them.
The website for Essay Mania reads: “Certain unprepared for instances can happen in everyone life [sic], when they will be required to pay a visit to an ailing relative or attend the funeral of someone close to them.
“Obviously, the academic term will not be put at a risk due to a situation that has stripped them off of all the motivation that they possessed earlier,” it continues.
“If an online essay help is available to them in the form of an online essay writing service, they must avail the opportunity.”
However, despite guaranteeing students a certain grade, other websites insist their essays are only intended to be “valuable teaching aids”.
One company, UK Essays, states on its website that its essays should be used in the same way as model essays handed out by tutors.
“Of course they [the essays] are legal - the provision of written help is a long established academic tradition and if they were banned then all published guide books would have to be banned, too,” the website reads.
“If an essay cheat chooses to misuse the service, it is not the fault of the custom essay writing company any more than the supplier of a textbook can be blamed if an essay cheat copies from it.”
UK Essays’ chief operations officer Daniel Dennehy said the industry was split.
“We as a UK company refuse to sell to cheats, and encourage proper use with our guarantees. We are a far cry from those businesses in India, Pakistan, the Ukraine, the USA and so on that actively encourage handing in and cheating.
“Simply there are two types of company in our industry, those that don’t promote cheating and actively try and stop it like us (almost all based in the UK and following our lead) and those that promote cheating and couldn’t care less about academic integrity, which are largely based overseas.”
Dame Julia Goodfellow, president of Universities UK, said: “Submitting work written by someone else is cheating and devalues the efforts of students who work hard to achieve their degrees.
“With information now so readily available online, it has become increasingly important to engage with students from day-one to underline the implications of cheating and how it can be avoided.
“The higher education sector has already done a lot of work in this area and universities have become more experienced in detecting and dealing with such forms of cheating.”