Criminal Grades? Contract cheating and student exploitation in Higher Education

Published: June 2022

Recent reports in the UK media highlight that students in higher education are increasingly outsourcing their assignments to third-party service providers (Newton 2018). In academic discourses, the submission of assignments completed by a third-party, whether a friend, family member, or a commercial enterprise, is often referred to as ‘contract cheating’. Whilst commentators, both in academia and beyond, have referred to contract cheating as reaching “epidemic” proportions (Turner 2017), there is currently little empirical evidence to substantiate such assertions (Lancaster and Clarke 2016; Newton 2018)

Responding to student vulnerability, contract cheating, and more widely, academic misconduct, requires a holistic approach. These are highly complex issues spanning a spectrum of poor academic practices to intentional attempts to procure bespoke assignments and submit them for academic credits (Thomas and Scott 2016). This research is concerned with examining some of these complexities in relation to higher education in Scotland, and more broadly, the trends and processes related to student vulnerability, misconduct, and contract cheating.

In particular, the aims of this scoping study are to:

  1. Understand the motivations for using, and
    experiences of, contract cheating in the context of
    higher education.
  2. Understand the relationship between the contract
    cheating market and the emergence of explicitly
    illegal forms of exploitation against students.
  3. To scope out possible indicators and attributes of
    more exploitative and high-risk provision in the essay
    mills market.
  4. Understand how the harms to students caused by
    criminality within a contract cheating context can
    be reduced, and how more widely the presence
    of criminality in contract cheating markets can be
    leveraged to undermine the continued operation of
    these markets.

A Briefing Paper has also been prepared in relation to this research report. 

Authors / Editors

Richard Kjellgren

University of Stirling

Dr Niall Hamilton-Smith

University of Stirling

Dr Alistair Fraser

University of Glasgow

Research Themes

Evidence, Statistics and Trends

Crimes of the Powerful: organised, white collar and state crime