University Crackdown on 'Essay-Mill' Websites: Why Blocking Them Isn't Enough

New government-backed guidelines from the university standards watchdog, The Quality Assurance Agency (QAA), are urging universities to crack down on ‘essay mill’ websites. These websites, as most of us students are probably aware, will write custom essays or even dissertations on request – but only if you can pay. However, it’s not enough for universities to merely block these websites or warn students about the risks of cheating. If the underlying motivations of the students who use ‘essay mill’ websites aren’t addressed, students will continue to find new and innovative ways to avoid writing their own essays.

Jo Johnson, Universities Minister

(Photo Credit: Times Higher Education)

‘Essay mill’ websites are undoubtedly a problem which universities need to combat. As Jo Johnson, Universities Minister, said, “this form of cheating… not only undermines standards in our world-class universities, but devalues the hard-earned qualifications of those who don’t cheat.” It is difficult to know the exact number of students who pay for essay-writing services, but the QAA’s research discovered that there were more than 100 websites in operation, confirmed by a quick google search. It can therefore be assumed that the use of these services is widespread.

(Photo Credit: Google)

So why are students risking their degrees by paying someone else to write their essays for them? Amatey Doku, the National Union of Students vice-president for higher education, emphasised the pressure that students are under to achieve “the highest grades” to make their degrees worth the roughly £50,000 of student debt. He said that many websites “play on the vulnerabilities and anxieties of students”, many of whom have to find paid work to top up their maintenance loans, leaving limited time for study. The QAA also found that cultural differences play a part, noting that a disproportionate number of the 50,000 students who have been caught cheating in British universities over the last three years are foreign. Transitioning from learning styles which stress memorisation as opposed to critical thinking can be overwhelming for foreign students, as can writing essays in a language which isn’t their first.

(Photo Credit: ttlearning.com)

Clearly, it isn’t enough for universities to block these websites or drill into students the academic risks of plagiarism. Rather than spreading fear amongst students already under immense pressure to achieve the highest marks, universities need to develop their support systems for those struggling to meet deadlines, or for foreign students who aren’t confident in their English language ability. Ultimately, as with most problems we see in universities, it seems that cheating on essays could be avoided if tuition fees were lowered and maintenance loans were more fairly assessed.