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Essay mills suspected of hiring 'promoters' within colleges to gather information on assignments

A memo from Quality and Qualifications Ireland (QQI) outlined its suspicions.

INDIVIDUAL STUDENTS ARE being targeted by online services offering to write assessments for them while “promoters” are suspected to have been hired within colleges to gather inside information on assignments.

Students have even been contacted individually on WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, and Instagram about specific essays they had to do as part of their college work.

A memo from Quality and Qualifications Ireland (QQI) said it was suspected details of the assignments were either being provided by other students in exchange for discounts or where students had been hired as “promoters” on college campuses.

The background memo said certain types of students were particularly at risk of using so-called ‘essay mills’ for cheating on assignments including postgraduate students and international students.

The briefing note explained: “Certain cohorts of learners appear to be more vulnerable to use of assignment writing services. In particular: international students where the pressure to succeed is very high and high levels of shame are associated with failing.

“[Also] postgraduate students where again there is a high level of investment in succeeding and learners may have additional financial and other pressures to deal with; and students on business and computer science (and related subject area) programmes.”

The memo said recent years had seen massive growth in ‘essay mills’ that offered “bespoke assignment writing services” to individual studies.

It said they had since expanded to include paraphrasing services – which try to get around counter-plagiarism tools that are in use in third level institutions.

QQI said international research showed as many as one in seven students may have used a contract cheating service, and that anecdotal evidence was this had increased during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The memo – which was sent to the Higher Education Authority last year – said that since March of 2021, “academic integrity alerts” were being sent every six weeks to colleges.

These provided an updated list of websites offering essay or assignment writing services while third-level institutions were also giving feedback on similar sites they had encountered.

The memo added: “The international reputation and credibility of the national education and training system, and that of the individual institutions within it, demands that our HEIs are bastions of academic integrity.”

In a statement, QQI said digital platforms were increasingly being used by essay mills to target students.

A spokeswoman said they had set up systems with TikTok, Google, Facebook, and Instagram where they could report profiles, posts, and search results that offered services which compromised academic integrity.

She said: “Regular check-in meetings with TikTok and Google will enable QQI to share trends of concern observed which may inform monitoring, community policies and [the] discoverability and ranking of search results.”

The spokeswoman said that a week-long series of master classes had taken place in May for the higher education sector on how academic misconduct could be detected and managed.

She said an academic integrity module for learners was also under development while workshops took place on an ongoing basis to tackle the problem of contract cheating.

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