Whilst the notion of essay mills is an ‘urban myth’ to most students, recent research suggests otherwise. A study from the University of Swansea in 2019 suggested that one in seven students around the world may be cheating in this way.
This figure can only have increased amidst a sudden rise in essay mills during these current times of increased isolation and uncertainty for students. This is threatening universities’ integrity, sparking Chris Skidmore, former Universities Minister, to embark on a new campaign to “outlaw essay firms exploiting students.”
Essay mills are businesses that incite students by advertising that they will write their essays for them. They are a winsome and seemingly easy get-out option for students struggling with work, particularly during a pandemic. Yet, like cutting into a mouldy potato, these corporations are rotten from the inside.
Trapping students with glossy advert slogans such as “to help you fight these tough conditions caused by the coronavirus outbreak, we have reduced the price of our services by up to 50 per cent – grab the offer now!”, these corporations are preying on students at their most vulnerable. They pretend to help, but they are dangerous to the higher education system, individual universities, and students themselves.
In Australia, Ireland and New Zealand, it is currently a crime to run essay mills. Skidmore is attempting to replicate this in the UK parliament: his ‘Essay Mills Prohibition Bill’ is still awaiting a second reading. However, it is as yet unclear whether this legislation will tackle the problem or just drive the industry deeper into the ‘black web’.
Whilst Google supposedly prevents essay mills from showing on their search engines in the UK, essay mill sites have clearly circumnavigated this. One type into Google flashes hundreds of results. Essay mill comparison sites demonstrate how the situation has got out of hand. Those in the industry are highly successful at penetrating universities by recruiting on-campus influencers and by directly targeting vulnerable students.
Exploitation is rife; there are reports of companies blackmailing students into buying their services, while cash-strapped students often sell essays for a tenner, after which companies sell them on for hundreds.
Skidmore profusely advocates, however, that corporations rather than the students should be prosecuted. I share the same sentiment: essay mills dominate students, not the other way round. Students are not their customers – they are held hostage by these poison chalice corporations.
The idea that students with money can buy their degree does not help to combat the elitism circling the UK’s higher education system. Concerns must be raised about whether this bill will drive these “ruthless” companies further underground, thus making them more threatening to students. Will essay mills be the next perversion of the internet made unintentionally worse by government intervention?
Whilst coronavirus has exacerbated the number of essay mills, they have been plaguing the student population long before this. The simple transaction of one student selling a younger student an essay cannot be as easily regulated by legislation. Yet Australia’s ban has been successful, with companies like Essay Sharks now stating that service is no longer available in that country. It is time for the UK to follow in their footsteps.
The rise of essay mills also sadly reveals how desperate students are, using essay mills as an alternative to asking for help. This sheds light on the negligence of student welfare during the pandemic. Nevertheless, Skidmore’s bill proposal is a welcome addition to the student community and one that will hopefully restore integrity to higher education by stamping out some of the cheating and unfairness.
Illustration: Adeline Zhao