Department of Education to draft stricter legislation against paid-for essays

Declaration rules in higher education institutions currently do not cover essay mills as it is difficult to detect outsourced material

Minister for Education Richard Bruton has said he plans to introduce legislation for prosecuting “essay mill” companies. These online companies offer to write essays for students for a fee.

Declaration rules in higher education institutions currently do not cover essay mills as it is difficult to detect outsourced material. Current anti-plagiarism software can only detect material re-used from previous sources.

In a statement, a spokesperson from the Department of Education said the proposed legislation will give “specific powers to prosecute ‘essay mills’ and other forms of cheating” to Quality and Qualifications Ireland (QQI), the higher education regulator. The Department hopes to enact the QQI Amendment Bill next year. Its composition will be based on findings from providers and students, as well as recent research in the UK.

As colleges find it difficult to detect “contract-cheating”, statistics of this behaviour are difficult to attain. However since 2010, there have been roughly 1,000 cases of students being punished for plagiarism, according to an Irish Times survey of certain third level institutions. As certain colleges did not provide figures, the real statistics are likely to be much higher.

Of the surveyed institutions, Institute of Technology, Tallaght had the highest rate of detection with 206 cases.

Student essays are often outsourced to sites such as WriteMyAssignments, which is based in Dublin. The site claims all information it produces is “entirely unique” and “all information submitted to us is entirely confidential and the interest of all parties involved is managed in a discreet manner”.

The site claims to oppose plagiarism and advises customers to “use and reference it as they would any other online source”. The site claims essays are written by a “postgraduate mentor” with a 1.1 or a 2.1 in a relevant degree from within five years. It also contains a list of institutes it provides essays for, which include Trinity.

The Department of Education said it is hard to get information from essay mill sites as “it is a form of cheating given that those offering the ‘service’ will not disclose it, those buying it will not, and there is no system-wide recording of detected instances of this or any other form of plagiarism”.

Last year, WriteMyAssignments told the Irish Times its demand was increasing, with employees having to write on average 350 assignments per year. Nursing and business assignments were among the most commonly-requested.

To get information on the service, a Sunday Times reporter contacted the site posing as a Trinity history undergraduate. The reporter requested an essay on Irish Civil War violence and received an offer of service in exchange for €300. The sites’ email signature tells students to “spread the word” of its services.

In the UK, a report by the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) found many contract-cheating sites have a pool of writers they assign essays to. However, the report found many students prefer freelance writers who charge lower fees. It also deemed many essays to be of “questionable quality”.