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Offering essay-writing services to students for a fee will become a criminal offence under plans to tackle cheating by "essay mills".

The government says the move will protect students from the "deceptive marketing techniques of contract cheating services".

Providing pre-written or custom-made essays for students to present as their own is already illegal in some places.

Skills Minister Alex Burghart said essay mills are "completely unethical".

There are more than 1,000 essay mills in operation, according to the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education, the watchdog for standards in UK universities.

The agency's Gareth Crossman said the decision "sends a clear signal" but the higher education sector must work together to put these "unscrupulous outfits" out of business.

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A 2018 survey suggested that 15.7% of recent graduates admitted to cheating, but Universities UK said that the use of essay mills by students was rare.

A spokeswoman said: "Universities have become increasingly experienced at dealing with such issues and are engaging with students from day one to underline the implications of cheating and how it can be avoided."

She added that universities welcomed the decision to make essay mills illegal, and said all universities have codes of conduct with severe penalties for submitting work that is not a student's own.

Students said there should be more academic and pastoral support, so that they are "never in the position of feeling that they have to turn to essay mills in the first place".

The National Union of Students said: "These private companies prey on students' vulnerabilities and insecurities to make money through exploitation, and never more so than during the pandemic."

The ban on essay mills is one of a number of measures being introduced to the Skills and Post-16 Education Bill.

It will also include changes to careers advice in schools intended to give equality to technical education, ensuring that pupils have opportunities to learn about apprenticeships, T-levels and traineeships.