How Big of a Problem is Contract Cheating?

There’s little doubt that contract cheating has been getting a great deal of attention in recent months and years.

In the UK, they are considering legislation to make contract cheating illegal. That proposal is based on already-existing laws in New Zealand. These laws came on the heels of a seemingly never-ending series of news stories about essay mills, including a recent plea to UK universities to block access to essay mill sites.

However, just because something is in the news doesn’t always mean it’s a huge problem. With contract cheating, the full scope of the issue is especially opaque since students are understandably reluctant to talk about their participation in contract cheating and the essay mills at the forefront of the issue are even more secretive about their practices.

Still, there are some indications to the size and scope of the problem.

Though it is difficult to know how many essay mill websites and companies are in operation (one company will often own many websites and the websites often appear/disappear quickly), the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) in the UK has found over 100 such websites in operation.

However, that explosion in competition hasn’t hurt the companies. One prominent player told the telegraph that their business had increased by 20 percent in the past two years. The QAA further estimates that the business is worth over £100m ($133m) in the UK alone.

But, as large as the industry is, it isn’t likely producing the results students want. Tests of essay mill websites have, in general, found the writing to be sub-par. This is because essay mills generally are performing rush jobs and giving them to international authors who may not understand the subject, the language, or the assignment.

However, the professional contract cheating services, while receiving the lion’s share of the media attention, is likely only a small part of the contract cheating picture. A recent study found that, though 10.4% of students admitted to using such a professional service, some 60.2% said that they used a current or former student, often in a less formal relationship.

This means that, for every one person who buys an essay through an essay mill, there may be six who purchase (or trade for) it from a friend or fellow student.

As tough as it is to track professional contract cheating, this form of contract cheating is even more difficult. It is much more informal and often doesn’t even involve exchanging money.

So while it’s difficult to know just how big the problem is, the best evidence points to a very large cottage industry of online and highly formalized contract cheating that is dwarfed by a much larger problem in the form of less formal but more personal contract cheating.

But while this shows how significant the problem of contract cheating is, it also shows how difficult it will be to stop. While taking action against contract cheating websites can make strides against the most egregious forms of the problem, it’s going to take a much more broad push to tackle the less formal forms of contract cheating.

Sadly, this will likely be an issue that will be around for a very long time.