Vice-chancellors from some of the UK's leading universities together with other leaders in the sector said the government should commit to introducing legislation to ban "the provision and advertising of essay mills" before the end of the current parliament.
Their letter (3-page / 163KB PDF), sent to Damian Hinds, the education secretary in England, identified 'contract cheating', where students pay third parties to write academic essays for them to pass off as their own work, as a growing problem globally and said the UK should follow the lead of other countries such as Australia, New Zealand and Ireland in introducing new legislation to tackle the issue.
"Essay mills undermine the integrity of UK higher education and are unfair to the vast majority of honest, hard-working students," the letter said. "We are confident that you abhor such cheating as much as we do and encourage you to take the necessary steps to curb these practices, steps which must include a legislative ban on operating or advertising an essay mill."
However, universities minister Sam Gyimah has said that while legislative options are "not off the table", there are actions institutions can take themselves to combat contract cheating, the BBC has reported.
According to that report, Gyimah said: "I expect universities to be educating students about these services and highlight the stiff, and possibly life-changing, penalties they face. I also want the sector to do more to grip the problem - for example by tackling advertising of these services in their institutions and finally blocking these services from sending an alarming number of emails to the inboxes of university students and staff. I have been working with organisations across the higher education sector to bear down on this problem and this has already resulted in the likes of YouTube removing adverts for these essay mills, but legislative options are not off the table."
Julian Sladdin, an expert in universities law at Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com, expressed disappointment with the minister's comments.
"Academic misconduct is a serious issue for the UK higher education sector as it is a form of dishonesty and significantly undermines the integrity of degree level qualifications," Sladdin said. "The sector has made great strides to combat forms of plagiarism and cheating through better use of technology, more robust policies and better educating students as to the significant risks to them of cheating in exams and assignments. However, it is clear that more is needed to tackle what is becoming a serious worldwide issue of academic fraud which cannot simply be addressed by the resources available to universities and colleges themselves."
"It is therefore, disappointing that while Sam Gimyah is not suggesting that legislation is off the table he seems to be putting back most of the responsibility on to institutions," he said.
In their letter, the 46 higher education sector figures admitted that legislation would not serve as a "magic bullet", but said it would be "a vital part of the broader package of measures".
"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," the letter said.
"Legislation would, amongst other advantages, shut-down UK-based essay mills; prevent the advertising of their services near campuses and in public places such as the London Underground; enable the removal of essay mills from search engine findings and prevent UK-based companies from hosting online advertisements for essay mills. 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," it said.
The officials said the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education should be commissioned to develop and publish a draft Bill by or before the beginning of the next parliamentary session, and said a new UK Centre for Academic Integrity should be established and given a "formal remit to research, analyse and combat academic misconduct".
Employment law expert Rob Childe of Pinsent Masons said last year that universities should consider carrying out their own investigations into essay mills because of the risk to their reputation if it emerges that their own academics or students are involved in the schemes. Childe's comments came after the QAA published guidance for higher education providers on how to address contract cheating.