There is ongoing interest in what is known as contract cheating – where students pay others to write assessment for them.
The Australian higher education regulatory agency TEQSA has just released a Good Practice Note on the subject. A team of researchers is currently in the middle of a large scale project to develop strategies to design assessment to counter the phenomenon: ‘Contract Cheating and Assessment Design: Exploring the Connection’
Contract cheating is conceptually different to traditional notions of plagiarism in that it is a predominantly commercial, market driven enterprise. Rather than a student surreptitiously borrowing another student’s work, contract cheating involves arms length payments to strangers who provide assessment answers for profit. Research has uncovered that such organisations can be multinational in scope, sourcing paper writers from Africa, Asia and Europe. In such circumstances it becomes relevant to ask whether such behaviour should be seen as criminal, and what offence may have been committed. While students are easy targets here, finding ways to prosecute the ‘essay mills’ is more complex.
Two articles address this issue. My recent article ( Contract cheating: Will students pay for serious criminal consequences?) looks at criminal liability in Australia, with a focus on NSW, suggesting that offences such as fraud, forgery and conspiracy to defraud may be committed. It also considers New Zealand’s specific anti-cheating legislation. The existence of an arguable basis for criminal prosecution of such entities also permits authorities to apply to freeze bank accounts under proceeds of crime legislation. This may be seen as a controversial approach, but it has already been adopted in New Zealand: Commissioner of Police v Li  NZHC 479
In a UK context, an article earlier this year by Michael Draper, Victoria Ibezim and Philip Newton ( Are Essay Mills committing fraud? ) explored whether essay mills can be prosecuted under the English Fraud Act 2006. They suggest it would be difficult and argue for the creation of a strict liability offence. Although their article does not discuss it, conspiracy to defraud and proceeds of crime offences are likely to be also available.
The conundrum that underlies the analysis in both articles is the fact that the criminality is at base that of a group crime – joint criminal enterprise or conspiracy – but on policy grounds it seems best to have the students dealt with in an educative and restorative manner outside of the criminal courts while throwing the book at the essay mills. Specific legislation banning the operations of the essay mills is the simple fix, but raises further questions of scope and standards of proof. It will be interesting to see if governments in Australia and the UK decide to take that path.