Yorkshire vice-chancellors and union leaders are among the 46 senior figures who have written to Education Secretary Damian Hinds amid fears that essay-writing companies 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, recent studies have found, and though it is not illegal for a company to offer the service, students who get caught face punishment or disqualification.
In the letter, the signatories, who include vice-chancellors of the University of York, Sheffield Hallam and Leeds Trinity Universities, as well as York St John, urge Mr Hinds to target those who provide the services, rather than students who use them.
“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,” they said.
“Legislation will not be a magic bullet; it is, however, a vital part of the broader package of measures.”
Vice-chancellor of the University of York, Prof Koen Lamberts said: “Essay mills undermine the integrity of our universities and are unfair to the vast majority of honest, hardworking students.
“They have no place in UK higher education and I hope today’s letter, signed by 46 vice-chancellors and heads of higher education bodies, will help highlight this most pressing issue.”
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.
Universities Minister Sam Gyimah has said outlawing the services 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.
“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.
“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.”
Estimates suggest there are more than 100 essay mills in operation in the country, with prices ranging from a few hundred pounds for a single essay to over £6,000 for a PhD dissertation.
A study by Swansea University 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 per cent rise in the number of students who admitted cheating between 2014 and 2018.
Professor Margaret House, vice-chancellor of Leeds Trinity University said: “Contract cheating is becoming more common and whilst universities must continue to do their part, this form of cheating is particularly hard to detect. The time has come for the Government to take necessary steps to shut down these operations.”