University lecturers are topping up their earnings by helping students cheat in their degree, a government-backed review will suggest.
The inquiry was commissioned by ministers amid concerns that universities are gripped by an epidemic of so-called “essay mills”, which sell essays, coursework or exam answers to students.
Institutions which repeatedly turn a blind eye to cheating could be stripped of their powers to award degrees by the Government’s new regulator, the Office for Students (OFS), The Sunday Telegraph has learned.
Academic staff and lecturers are among those paid by “essay mill” companies to complete work for students, the report by the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA), the UK's independent quality body for higher education, is expected to find.
“These 'essay mill' companies prey on vulnerable academics as well as students,” said Douglas Blackstock, chief executive of the QAA.
“These are hard-pressed research assistants or lecturers, topping up their earnings. Many companies claim they get genuine academics to write their material. To make their businesses viable, they need to attract people who know enough about the subject.
“If a university was to find a member of staff was writing an essay for [their students] we would think that is a serious issue.”
The report will recommend that universities add an explicit clause into academic staff contracts to explain that “assisting a student to commit an academic offence, or ignoring evidence of misconduct, would be a cause for a staff disciplinary investigation”.
Later this month the OFS will unveil a series of conditions for registration, which institutions will have to meet if they want to retain their status as a university.
Mr Blackstock told The Sunday Telegraph that the ability to secure academic standards is likely to be a condition for registration. “In a really serious failing of academic standards, there will be significant consequences. [The OFS] allows for the removal of degree awarding powers,” he said.
He said that universities must have appropriate sanctions in place to tackle “contract cheating”, and if they fail to address the issue “there have to be consequences”. “Universities have a responsibility for academic standards,” he said.
“There are expectations that they secure standards of their degrees.” Mr Blackstock warned that failing to confront fraudulent university work not only undermines academic standards, but is also a matter of public safety when graduates enter the jobs market.
“This is where we want to work with the professionals,” he said. “You wouldn't want a lawyer representing you in a court case [if they had not passed their Law degree on their own].
“If it it was a medical related profession or something that [impacted on] public safety - that is such a dangerous thing.”
In a really serious failing of academic standards, there will be significant consequences
Douglas Blackstock, QAA chief executive
He said if the issue is not addressed, there are "significant consequences" for institutions, for students and academics, and for the public. The QAA has previously found the use of essay mills was “rife” among university students, with previous reports suggesting that sixth-form pupils also use such methods.
Earlier this year, this newspaper revealed that more than 20,000 students enrolled at British universities are paying up to £6,750 for bespoke essays in order to obtain degrees.
The number of students using “essay mill” sites, which can charge over £6,500 for a PhD dissertation, has rocketed over the last five years.
While universities already use complex anti-plagiarism software to detect the copying of academic texts, the process of contract cheating - where students submit paid-for essays as their own original work - means that examiners and markers are powerless to prevent foul play.
The QAA’s guidance for universities is due to be published on Monday, in a report titled “Contracting to cheat in higher education: how to address contract cheating, the use of third party services and essay mills”.
Universities minister Jo Johnson said he welcomes the guidance from QAA and expects the OFS to “ensure that the sector implements strong policies and sanctions to address this important issue in the most robust way possible”.