Can UK Universities Stop Their Students From Cheating?

Maddy White
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Students in the UK are increasingly turning to third-party essay writing services. Can universities adequately deal with this issue?

Academic misconduct has increased by 40% at the UK’s top universities according to an investigation by The Guardian, with incidents rising from 2,640 in the 2014-15 academic year to 3,721 in 2016-17.

“Students have always found ways to cheat. It’s something that’s part of everyday life, but we still have to do something about it.” Expert in computer science and contract cheating, Dr Thomas Lancaster told The Versed.

Essay writing sites or mills provide students with easy access to bespoke work they haven’t completed themselves. One site claims to have over 500 experts to cater to certain subject areas and that they have improved students’ grades by 92%. This third party exchange is known as ‘contract cheating’ and it’s on the rise in the UK.

Some students use essay writing services to ease the pressures of university workloads. Photo via Flickr

Contract essay writing

There are hundreds of third party sites offering up university level work for fees ranging from hundreds to thousands of pounds. One review on UK Essays, a site which considers themselves a ‘bespoke essay modelling’ service, reads, “They are worth every penny and I am happy I have found them and the writer that produced my work.” The site also boasts: “The Times even verified that a 2:1 piece of work produced by us met this standard.”

Posing as a potential client online, a customer service assistant for UK Essays said to The Versed, “We’ve been in business for over 14 years and have helped thousands of customers.” They stressed the work they produce is strictly not allowed for university submissions just as a “model answer for your exact requirements, as they continued to quote prices and grades.

Lancaster added that he thinks it is a repeat group of students using these sites.From my own research, I’ve found that there’s a tail of students who are cheating in most or all of their assessments. That means they’ve found that they’re getting away with it, so they’re continuing to cheat. That group of students, in particular, is challenging for higher education in the UK.”

Turnitin is the largest provider of monitoring software to universities in Britain and the company is testing a new programme to be released in the second half of 2018. The programme, Authorship Investigation aims to catch out the students paying for, and submitting, professionally written essays. Authorship Investigation will learn and monitor individual student’s writing styles and highlight work that shows considerable differences in style and approach from their prior submissions.

It may become harder for universities to detect the use of third party sources as services are constantly evolving. Photo by Benjamin Ashton

What can be done?

“There are a lot of things we can do to counter contract cheating” Lancaster explained, “Most importantly, it needs the combined effort of students, lecturers, professional support staff and senior higher education sector bodies.”

“We need to get the message out to students that using essay mills and contract cheating services isn’t acceptable and isn’t without risk. After all, we’ve seen examples of students being scammed and blackmailed. And that’s before the students who do get caught and end up without a degree and a black mark on their future record.”

Lancaster partly blames the “aggressive” advertising strategies of essay writing companies. “A lot of it comes down to fear of failure on the student’s part, as well as heavy workloads both inside and outside university.”

There will always be a way to cheat in higher education as and contract cheating seems an easy way out for students who are afraid of failure and under pressure. New software like Authorship Investigation could help reduce plagiarism by matching individual student’s styles to their submitted work, which could stop third-party essays being graded as legitimate. But even if contract cheating becomes easier to detect in student’s work, similar services such as bespoke essay modelling could take their place. Universities now face a fight to stay informed on the continually changing landscape of ‘contract cheating’ services, and they could struggle to keep up.

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