'Essay mill' websites could grind to a halt in clampdown on university cheating

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Universities are being urged to consider blocking websites and using smarter plagiarism-detecting software in a bid to crack down on cheating.

Universities watchdog the Quality Assurance Agency has issued advice for institutions to crack down on "contract cheating" and the use of "essay mills", which will write work for students for payment.

It comes after universities minister Jo Johnson asked the QAA, vice-chancellors' group Universities UK (UUK) and the National Union of Students to draw up new guidance for institutions on how to deal with the issue.

A report released by the QAA suggests a raft of measures which universities could implement, including:

:: Using organisation-wide linguistic analysis tools to detect changes in a student's writing style and employing text-matching software

:: Blocking known essay mill websites from the organisation's IT systems

:: Providing support for struggling students who could be tempted to use an essay mill

:: Introducing a mixture of assessments to limit cheating opportunities

Students already face penalties for academic misconduct - including the use of essay services - ranging from losing marks to being removed from a degree course, depending on the circumstances and severity of the case.

But the report urges universities to make it explicit to students that cheating could cost them their qualification.

An investigation by the QAA last year found there were more than 100 essay mill websites in operation.

Prices for essays vary depending on the complexity of the work and the deadline, but can range from a couple of hundred pounds for a single essay to around £6,750 for a PhD dissertation.

Speaking earlier this year, Mr Johnson said: "This form of cheating is unacceptable and every university should have strong policies and sanctions in place to detect and deal with it.

"Essay mill websites threaten to undermine the high-quality reputation of a UK degree so it is vital that the sector works together to address this in a consistent and robust way."