Richard Bruton, Minister for Education and Skills, has identified a problem that few others considered as such: “unfair” essay mills, whereby students buy their written academic work online. Leaving aside the fact that there is little evidence – either anecdotally or seriously – to indicate that essay mills are indeed a problem large enough to distort student outcomes, this seems like yet another example of the government diverting our attention away from more important concerns.
Like the popular crusade against “welfare cheats”, the introduction of legislation to prevent the use of essay mills and other forms of academic cheating is not the most rewarding focal point for the government. Targeting cheating at higher and more detrimental levels – like corporations dodging their tax requirements – would see far more of a useful monetary payoff. Fighting essay mills is just as much of a needless endeavour, They provide a cheap paper writing service for those that might struggle to articulate their thoughts as coherently as they might like to so they seek different kinds of help and given the far more critical issues assailing higher education, it might make more sense to refocus on the other blaring issues. With many of these, the government is making little to no effort to develop plausible solutions to some of the biggest problems facing the higher education sector.
Tellingly, influential academics agree that essay mills should not be the main source of concern. Prof Brian Lucey, of Trinity’s School of Business, writes of “how little sensible focus is exerted on real challenges facing the higher education sector”, looking at several far more critical challenges – such as chronic underfunding of higher education, high dropout rates, Brexit, and the poor structures in place for international students, amongst many more. Selecting essay mills as your demon of choice seems not just short-sighted, but almost incomprehensible given these other challenges.
While one could give Bruton the benefit of the doubt, and argue that academic cheating does distort the system and is unfair to students who put in the work, there seems to be no evidence that it’s a large-scale problem in Ireland. And even if it is, many of these companies are based internationally and so could not face prosecution even with legislation in place. Colum Kelly argues that reform at the university level, such as replacing continuous assessment with more innovative forms of evaluation, would more successfully and easily disrupt academic cheating than legislation would. Rather, the government should be taking steps to resolve the far bigger issues assailing higher education, and not getting bogged down in the minutiae of smaller concerns. Crowd-pleasing ideas, with obvious scapegoats, should not be the government’s primary focus.