By Rhea Poonevala – IT with Business (BSc) student, Institute of Teaching and Learning Student Partner (2020)
Like me, you may not immediately be familiar with the term ‘contract cheating.’ However there’s a good chance you’ve had an encounter with someone offering this form of academic misconduct, without realising it.
“Contract cheating” is the practice of engaging a third party to write a bespoke assignment on your behalf.
“Essay mills” are companies who supply written work to students for payment – they may use persuasive techniques to contact you directly.
I didn’t really understand all of this myself, until I held focus groups to hear perspectives from other students as part of a project. During the group, fellow students came up with four reasons why one might engage in contract cheating. Let’s address each one and talk about safer, more ethical alternatives.
1. You don’t understand what counts as cheating, or it’s become normalised
If you aren’t fully informed about what constitutes cheating, you are more vulnerable to essay mills. They’ll attempt to normalise what they do by telling you it’s OK and that it “doesn’t really count” as cheating.
To guard against this, you should read the University’s guidance on academic malpractice. This clearly explains the different forms of malpractice (or cheating), and gives you tips on how to avoid them.
2. You’re feeling high stress and time pressure
University courses are complex and the work can build up, making us feel overwhelmed and stressed. Rather than relying on a third party, try to re-think what you can realistically finish in the time that you have available – or explore your options for getting more time.
The University has policies about requesting coursework extensions, and supporting students who have mitigating circumstances that are affecting their ability to study. Try talking to your Academic Advisor, your School’s Student Experience team or your course director to discuss your options.
3. You want good grades but lack confidence in your writing
Essay mills supposedly assure students of a specific grade, but this isn’t necessarily reliable when they don’t know what your lecturers expect and don’t have access to programme-specific materials. For specific queries, speaking to tutors, academic advisors or lecturers will provide you guidance – who better to explain something than the person who taught it?
The university offers a variety of avenues you can use for help, such as the Library’s award-winning skills programme My Learning Essentials. This offers online resources, face-to-face workshops and drop-ins on skills such as academic writing and referencing. There is also an online “live chat” function for immediate response. All of this is free and there for you to use.
4. You’re studying in a second language
University work can be especially challenging if you’re studying in a second language – essay mills understand this and often target these students in particular. But rather than spending money and time with them, try getting advice and help from one of the various avenues offered at the university instead.
The University Language Centre runs Academic English workshops that you can access flexibly. The Students’ Union Advice Service offers support for any questions, worries or concerns you might have. Their dedicated advisors are great listeners and their advice is always free, impartial and conﬁdential.
What to do
If you find yourself in one of these situations, I urge you to take a moment and reflect back on the points above and the range of help available from the University before taking any action:
- Be aware of contract cheating, know that it’s considered malpractice and that it can have serious penalties. If you’re worried that your friends might be vulnerable to essay mills, make sure they understand this too – and share this article so they have tips to help them.
- If you’re not sure about something or are worried about an assignment, ask the lecturer. If you want another set of eyes, you can join your local PASS (Peer Assisted Study) scheme.
- If you feel you don’t have enough time to complete an assignment, speak to your course director and apply for an extension if you can.
As a student myself, I understand the stress of exams, pressure of deadlines and the sleepless nights. At first, contract cheating may seem like a fast way of receiving good grades. But I can promise you the initial instant gratification is not worth the long term consequences.