Cheating at some leading universities has more than doubled in the past five years, new figures show as Russell Group institutions admit they are struggling to police so-called “essay mills”.
The number of students formally investigated for academic malpractice has quadrupled at Leeds University, from 127 in 2014/15 to 516 last year, according to figures obtained by The Telegraph under freedom of information requests.
Meanwhile, the number at Nottingham University almost trebled from 195 to 514 over the same period, and more than doubled at Queen Mary University London from 104 to 248.
It comes amid a rise in the use of “essay mills”, where companies offer essay-writing services for a fee. Also known as “contract cheating”, it is particularly difficult to spot since the essays are written by humans rather than machines and often tailored for individual subjects.
Some universities have seen decline in traditional plagiarism but this now being replaced by contract cheating, figures show.
Despite overall academic misconduct decreasing by 27 percent over five years at Cardiff University, there has been a 73 percent rise in “collusion” offences, where students pay their peers to do their work for them or hire professional services.
Essay mills are illegal in some countries and vice-Chancellors have called for essay mills to be outlawed in the UK, amid fears they 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, according to a recent study.
Universities concede that it is hard to spot culprits, with a Manchester University spokesman saying: “Contract cheating is a difficult area to police and there are a number of external services marketing themselves to students around this area.”
Experts have warned that essay mills have become more common in recent years, with labour being outsourced to unemployed university graduates in countries like Kenya, India and Pakistan.
Dr Irene Glendinning, an academic manager at Coventry University and vice president European Network for Academic Integrity said these figures are just the tip of the iceberg since so many instances go unnoticed.
She added that students are being “bombarded” with advertisements for essay mills on social media as well as on campus.
All Russell Group universities said they take academic misconduct cases extremely seriously, and that the number of students investigated remains low.
A number are implementing new strategies in an attempt to crack down on essay mills. Manchester University said it has recently added new clauses to its plagiarism procedures to specifically cover essay mills, while University College London said that from the start of this academic year, they can now viva students suspected on contract cheating.
A Nottingham University spokesman said: “the best way to tackle essay mills is for the government to legislate against them and block their webpages at a national level”.