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India-based ‘contract cheating’ a growing problem for UK varsities

Online “essay mills” and India-based “contract cheating” which enable students to acquire essays and even PhD dissertations have cast a shadow over British universities.

world Updated: Feb 21, 2017 22:08 IST
Prasun Sonwalkar
The phenomenon of “contract cheating”, whereby course assignments are contracted to freelancers and others online for a fee, was first reported by academics at Birmingham City University in 2008.
The phenomenon of “contract cheating”, whereby course assignments are contracted to freelancers and others online for a fee, was first reported by academics at Birmingham City University in 2008.(bcu.ac.uk)

The quality of degrees from British universities is being undermined by a large number of online “essay mills” and India-based “contract cheating” that enables students to acquire assignments – from essays to PhD dissertations – for a fee, officials and academics say.

Universities minister Jo Johnson on Tuesday called on university and student bodies to do more to deal with the spread of “essay mills” or websites that provide custom written essays for students to submit as part of their degree 

Academics told Hindustan Times that thousands of students at British universities have also been using Indian expertise in IT in a growing phenomenon called “contract cheating”, whereby course assignments are contracted to freelancers and others online for a fee. 

The phenomenon – first reported in academic circles in 2008 by Thomas Lancaster and Robert Clarke at Birmingham City University – has become more sophisticated over the years, making it difficult to detect through usual plagiarism detection software.

Lancaster, now at Staffordshire University, told Hindustan Times: “We’ve observed a lot of people from India bidding to complete academic work for students. They make offers that are very appealing to students from the UK, they’ll do the assignment for what is a low price for a UK student, but a good living wage for the worker in India.” 

He added, “As part of my contract cheating work, I’m seeing a lot of advertising for essay mills around university campuses in the UK. Companies are handing out business cards and they’re advertising to students on social media. A lot of this advertising is targeted at international students, including those from India.”

Universities have plagiarism detection software, but several websites offer “plagiarism-free guarantees”, or essays and assignments tested against such detection software, making it difficult for academics to confirm the authenticity of a student’s work.

Johnson said: “This form of cheating is unacceptable and every university should have strong policies and sanctions in place to detect and deal with it. 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 spread of “essay mill” websites was uncovered in a report by the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA), an independent body tasked with safeguarding standards and improving the quality of higher education in Britain.

The QAA confirmed the existence of more than 100 such websites, with prices depending on the complexity of assignments and tightness of deadlines. They can range from a couple of hundred pounds for one essay to as high as £6,750 for a PhD dissertation.

Ian Kimber of QAA said: “Essay mills are a major challenge for universities and colleges because, unlike other forms of cheating, the practice is notoriously difficult to detect. We look forward to continuing our work with the government and sector colleagues in addressing an issue potentially damaging to students and the reputation of UK higher education.”

According to Lancaster, India-based advertising for such services mention possession of degrees from British universities, which suggests they are familiar with the British education system, making them attractive for potential student-customers.

He said: “There are a lot of fluent English speakers in India. Students can hire these people and get their assignments produced to a similar standard as if they’d used a more expensive native English speaker. 

“For instance, in my area of computer science, we see requests for students to have their computer programming assignments completed for them. For a programmer based in India, they can often complete an introductory assignment in a few hours, when this would take a new student a few weeks. It works out as a good deal for both parties.” 

Johnson has called for new guidance on the issue to include tough new penalties for those who make use of “essay mills” and the need to educate students about the potentially significant negative impacts on their future career if they are caught cheating.