The Government is refusing to rule out legislation to ban so-called “essay mills” after more than 40 university chiefs demanded action.
They have written to Education Secretary Damian Hinds calling for companies who offer essay-writing services to be made illegal amid fears they are undermining the integrity of degree courses.
As many as one in seven recent graduates may have cheated by using “essay mills” during the last four years, according to a recent study.
Students who get caught face punishment by their university, including possible disqualification, although it is not illegal for a company to offer the service.
In the letter, the signatories, who include vice-chancellors, the chief executive of the Russell Group of universities and the former head of Ucas, urge Mr Hinds to target those who provide the services, rather than students who use them.
They said: “This form of cheating is particularly hard to detect and, whilst universities must continue to do their part, it is clear to us the time has come for the Government to give legislative backing to the efforts to shut down these operations.
“Legislation will not be a magic bullet; it is, however, a vital part of the broader package of measures.
“Most importantly, it will send a clear statement to the global higher education sector that the integrity of a UK degree is valued by the Government.”
Universities Minister Sam Gyimah has said outlawing the services completely remains an option, although work is ongoing to tackle the problem by other means.
“Today’s news on essay mills reveals the scale of the black market available to students – these services are normalising and enabling cheating, but also trying to devalue the quality of our degrees and put our world-class reputation at risk.
“University is all about learning, training your intellect and applying knowledge to a high standard.
“Students work incredibly hard to get a place at university and those who choose to cheat risk throwing it all away, cheating their futures, for the sake of a short-cut.
“Students must not resort to cheating, it is not the solution for anyone who may be struggling on their course, the right thing is to speak to lecturers and get the right support.
“Legislative options are not off the table, but I also expect universities to be taking steps to tackle this issue, the Office for Students will take tough action if they fail to do so.”
Essay mills are illegal in some countries, such as New Zealand, Ireland, Australia and some US states, and a parliamentary petition is already under way calling for them to be banned.
The work can be difficult to identify as the essays are tailored for individual subjects and appear original.
A study by Swansea University published in August reviewed questionnaires dating back to 1978 where students were asked if they had ever paid for someone else to complete their work.
The findings – covering 54,514 participants – showed a 15.7% rise in the number of students who admitted cheating between 2014 and 2018.
In March, the Advertising Standards Agency banned adverts for an essay-writing company by failing to make it clear that the papers were not meant to be submitted by students as their own work.
Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of the Office for Students, said: “The rise in the use of essay mills in recent years has sought to turn cheating into an industry.
“Essay mills are deeply unethical, and their operation is unfair on the vast majority of students who hand in their own work.
“We will work closely with the Government and the whole higher education sector in a collective effort to close these operations for good.”
A spokeswoman for the NUS said the issue was complex, with students concerned about debts and getting a return on their investment.
“Students are under immense pressure,” she said.
“Many websites prey on the vulnerabilities and anxieties of students, particularly homing in on students’ fears that their academic English and their referencing may not be good enough.
“The solution may not be as simple as a ban would suggest. Institutions and the Government must look at the underlying issues behind the rise in essay mills and seek to ensure that students are being given the support they need.”