Online giants like PayPal must stop enabling the “unethical” practices of essay mills which exploit young people, the Education Secretary has said.
Damian Hinds has launched a series of measures to “beat the cheats” using essay writing services at universities, saying he has not ruled out making them illegal.
He has challenged online payment platform PayPal to stop processing transactions as part of a drive to preserve and champion the quality of the UK’s higher education system.
Mr Hinds branded it “unethical” for companies to profit from the dishonest practice which is exploiting young people.
He said: “Sadly there have always been some people who opt for the easy way and the internet has seen a black market in essay writing services spring up.
“However, no matter how easy it is to access these services now, it doesn’t change the fact that this is cheating, and students must understand it is unacceptable.
“It is simply unethical for these companies to profit from this dishonest business which is exploiting young people and it is time to stamp them out of our world-class higher education sector.
“I am determined to beat the cheats who threaten the integrity of our system and am calling on online giants, such as PayPal, to block payments or end the advertisement of these services – it is their moral duty to do so.
“There has been some positive progress made by some in the tech sector, but it is vital that we all unite to clamp down on this practice and the companies that are feeding on it.”
A spokesman for PayPal confirmed the company was already reviewing the issue.
Essay mills are illegal in some countries, such as New Zealand, Ireland, Australia and some US states.
But Mr Hinds said legislating was not necessarily the most effective solution due to the ability of the essay mills to be based overseas.
He explained: “I haven’t ruled out legislation, but it would be wrong to think that just that passing a law is the way that you would deal with this once and for all.
“You have to address it through these multiple partners.”
The Department for Education (DfE) said companies like Google and YouTube have responded to the calls and are taking steps to remove hundreds of adverts for essay-writing service.
As part of the action being taken by the DfE and the sector, Mr Hinds is also calling on universities to crack down on those found cheating.
He is asking institutions to consider “honour codes” which would see students pledge not to use essay writing services for their own assignments.
In 2016, the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) found approximately 17,000 instances of academic offences per year in the UK.
However, the number of students using essay writing services is thought to be much higher as plagiarised essays often go undetected.
A study by Swansea University published last 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% rise in the number of students who admitted cheating between 2014 and 2018.
The DfE, QAA, Universities UK (UUK) and the National Union of Students have worked together to publish guidance for universities on how best to tackle the use of essay mills.
This includes educating students about the risks of using essay writing services and blocking advertisements of these services on campus.
QAA chief executive, Douglas Blackstock, said: “Companies that try to entice students to buy so-called plagiarism free essays pose a real threat to the academic integrity of our higher education.
“These unscrupulous operators, increasingly and falsely marketing themselves as providing legitimate study aids, must be stopped in their tracks.”
Sir Anthony Seldon, vice-chancellor of the University of Buckingham, said: “This is an important step forward.
“Teaching of honesty should be at the heart of universities as it is now in schools.
“Cheating should be tackled and the problem should not be allowed to fester any longer.
“Legislation is needed to outlaw this abominable practice, but this is a valuable first step.”
Mr Hinds explained that the individual using the service may not see it as exploitative, but for the student body it is.
He added: “And ultimately we need to know that anybody coming through the university system who gets graded and come out with a qualification and a degree class, that they have been on a level playing field with the rest of the student body.
“And if they’re not, then yes, that is a form of exploitation for financial gain.”