Employment law specialist Rob Childe of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com, said an internal investigation might be timely as a result of the increased scrutiny being placed on essay mills by the universities watchdog, the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA).
Earlier this week, the QAA outlined plans (33-page / 212KB PDF) to combat "contract cheating", where students pay third parties to write academic essays for them to pass off as their own work. It also published guidance (37-page / 492KB PDF) on the issue for higher education providers.
The QAA said that, among other things, it would lodge a complaint with the UK's advertising watchdog, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), and further seek to discourage advertising of essay writing websites online, and ask search engines to delist the websites from their search results.
The QAA also said that, whilst it has no regulatory powers to take action against essay mills, it can investigate universities for their adherence to quality standards in relation to the measures they have in place for combatting plagiarism and cheating. It said it would engage with the UK government over potential changes to legislation to help tackle essay mills.
"Given the limitations of existing legal and regulatory powers, it is worth considering the potential for the introduction of new legal and/or regulatory powers designed to prohibit or more effectively regulate the activities of these websites," the QAA said. This could, for example, take the form of an offence of aiding or enabling for financial gain individuals to commit acts of academic dishonesty."
"There may also be lower-level regulations or statutory instruments which could empower an organisation to take action against custom essay writing services. A robust case will be needed, as will careful discussions with the government on the appropriate legal mechanism. We recognise that the scope of such regulations/legislation would necessarily be limited to the UK, and that the devolved governments may also need to be involved," it said.
Rob Childe of Pinsent Masons said essay mills pose potential reputational risks for universities.
"One of the issues that has received little media attention so far is who is involved in contracting with the 'essay mills' to draft these essays," Childe said. "It will potentially be very embarrassing for universities if it transpires that their own academic staff or students are involved in producing these essays and this could cause significant reputational damage."
"Universities should therefore be considering whether to carry out their own investigations to determine who is involved in producing these essays and dealing with those individuals under their internal procedures, as well as taking steps to prevent the cheating and plagiarism itself," he said.