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The true cost of essay mills

Selling essays, assignments and even PhD theses is a legal and thriving business in the UK, but could soon be criminalised following a bill, supported by Turnitin and other major higher education bodies to prohibit their operation.

Students are more vulnerable and more likely to succumb to the temptation of buying an essay if they are targeted with well-timed advertising and affordable discounts

The bill challenges claims made by essay mills that their services are intended simply to increase a student’s understanding of a topic. It also questions why, if this is the case, do they employ such aggressive marketing tactics to target students during common university submission periods?

Essay mills understand that students feel the greatest pressure at the middle and end of their semesters when their deadlines are looming. They have learned that students are more vulnerable and more likely to succumb to the temptation of buying an essay if they are targeted with well-timed advertising and affordable discounts.

The overall interaction between students and essay mills often feels like a business transaction. These businesses strive to provide a ‘professional’ experience for students in place of a nefarious one, which helps to eliminate any lingering anxiety that students may have around the legitimacy of an essay provider.

The price of purchasing an essay is wide-ranging but accessible. Results compiled by Dr Thomas Lancaster in 2018 highlights that a 2,000-word original essay can cost from as little as £3 GBP up to a staggering £800 GBP. However, the UK essay mill most prominent in the media charges a reasonable £279 GBP for a 2:1 standard essay delivered within the week.

“Essay mills often rely on the exploitation of graduates both domestically and overseas”

It’s clear from this data that the monetary cost of hiring an essay writer is, in the grand scheme, relatively low; however, other costs involved in this activity are substantially higher.

Not only do essay mills harm student academic integrity and institutional reputations, but they also often rely on the exploitation of graduates both domestically and overseas—with some mills appearing to be based in the UK, but actually located in countries such as Kenya, China, India, and Pakistan. Many writers work long shifts for as little as £1 an hour or sell their own essays to commercial writing services in return for a fraction of the profit.

After a student enlists third-party assistance, they place themselves in a vulnerable position, whereby essay mills can threaten exposure to the student’s university if they do not meet payment demands. In 2019, then education secretary, Damian Hinds MP, led a successful campaign urging PayPal to stop processing essay mill payments. Two years later, the education industry is still fighting this form of academic misconduct.

Essay mills are now facing criminalisation in the UK as a result of the Essay Mills (Prohibition) Bill, led by Chris Skidmore MP, former UK universities minister, with support offered by groups including the National Union of Students, Turnitin, and the Quality Assurance Agency, along with academics from across the UK. Plans are currently under consideration by the government, and if the bill is passed, this would see perpetrators reprimanded.

“Essay mills are now facing criminalisation in the UK”

This is an issue that Turnitin is passionate about. Essay mills are a major threat to academic integrity worldwide, and by increasing the prevalence of contract cheating and diminishing the significance of degrees and qualifications, they have the potential to seriously jeopardise institutional reputations.

Combined with the right policy framework at the institution level, awareness and engagement among both instructors and students, and the adoption of the right technology to support prevention and investigation, legislative action will help to counter the threat essay mills pose to the entire education sector.

Educators and institutions continue to adjust to the changed circumstances resulting from coronavirus and it is now more important than ever for legislative and institutional frameworks to align in tackling custom writing services.

It’s clear that students and educators alike need to understand the strategies that have helped this industry to grow and continue to find ways to fight back against the threat that is contract cheating.

Learn more about the threat of essay mills with practical solutions for overcoming contract cheating in education.

About the author:

Gill Rowell is Turnitin’s Education Manager. Based in the UK, Gill was involved with the initial rollout of Turnitin to UK universities and colleges from 2002 onwards and continues to work closely with academic colleagues and institutions worldwide. As a former academic librarian and having chaired international conferences on the subject of plagiarism and academic integrity, Gill has a solid background in education. Gill is an advocacy and thought leadership specialist, working closely with Turnitin customers, subject experts, researchers and national and international bodies in the education sector to proactively source good practice and initiatives which promote academic integrity whilst building community initiatives. Gill is also a member of the QAA Academic Integrity Advisory Group.

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