A legal crackdown on the growing number of services writing essays or other assignments for third-level students is under way.
ew anti-cheating laws came into effect last week making it an offence either to provide or advertise cheating services or to publish adverts promoting such services.
The use of what are often known as "essay mills" that sell custom-written assignments, essays and theses, which students then submit as their own work, is rising, both nationally and internationally.
It is estimated that there are five or six major providers, as well as smaller operators, in the Irish market, offering services for learners across the spectrum from post-Leaving Cert courses up to PhD level.
Rates can vary depending on quality, word count and deadline. One Irish service charges €15 for 300 words and up to €150 for 2,500 words. Another company selling into Ireland charges about €305 for a 2,500-word PhD essay delivered in 10 days or about €540 for a three-hour turnaround.
While there are no firm figures on the extent of the problem either in Ireland or globally, one UK report suggests that up to one in seven (14pc) graduates may have paid someone to undertake an assignment for them, and research in Australia puts the figure at 6-10pc of students.
The problem of academic cheating has moved beyond plagiarism, where students adopt a "cut and paste" approach to someone else's work, which may be picked up by detection software commonly used by colleges.
Now contractors offer bespoke essays or theses, and claim they are plagiarism-free on the basis that they are original pieces of work, and it can be impossible to establish that it is not the work of the student.
The facilitation of cheating by "essay mills" has been recognised by State agency the Quality and Qualifications Ireland (QQI) as a growing threat to the integrity of Irish higher education.
QQI requested the new powers of prosecution as part of wider legislative changes.
Ireland is one of the first countries to introduce legislation to tackle the problem, and QQI is moving rapidly to enforce the new provisions.
As a first step in executing the new anti-cheating powers, QQI is planning communications campaigns targeting providers, learners, advertisers and publishers to inform them of the new legislation and its implications.
The agency has also set up a National Academic Integrity Network, comprising representatives of all public and private third-level colleges as well as student representatives, with a view to creating a collaborative approach to dealing with the problem.
QQI wants to agree common definitions of academic cheating, identify good practice in dealing with cheating and develop methodologies for the reporting and prosecution of instances of cheating.
The network had its first meeting in Dublin yesterday, where it was addressed by Professor Michael Draper, of Swansea University, and Professor Cath Ellis, of the University of New South Wales, who both have extensive experience in the area of contract cheating and essay mills.