COMPANIES that sells plagiarised essays to students are "immoral", Scottish universities have said.

Universities Scotland, which represents the sector, called for a clampdown on so-called "essay mills".

Last year it emerged that more than 20,000 students are buying professionally-written essays every year at universities across the UK.

Whilst universities already operate strict anti-plagiarism systems to detect the copying of academic texts, the process of contract cheating where students purchase professionally-written essays to submit as their own original work means examiners find it much harder to prevent foul play.

"Essay mills and other companies offering services of this nature are acting immorally on all levels," a spokesman for Universities Scotland said.

"Universities are aware of this type of business and have software in place to detect plagiarism. Staff take all forms of academic dishonesty extremely seriously and are vigilant to plagiarism and cheating.

"Submitting work written by someone else is cheating and devalues the efforts of students who work hard to achieve their degrees."

Luke Humberstone, president of NUS Scotland, said students feeling the pressure of academic life shouldn't see essay mills as the easy solution.

He said: "The easy solution is the tailored support that should already exist on campuses. This has to mean not just ensuring they have the financial support they need, but that counselling, pastoral, and academic services are available and well-sign-posted too."

Mary Senior, UCU Scotland Official, added: "University staff are really sympathetic to the pressures students find themselves under, but it’s never the answer to turn to the firms who provide these services.

"University study is about developing critical analytical skills, and any growth of these exploitative "essay mill" firms is a negative side of market driven education.

"We’d urge students who felt they were struggling to speak to the staff teaching them instead of handing money over to dodgy businesses.”

READ MORE: How Scottish shell firms front for internet essay mills

An investigation in 2016 by the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) found hundreds of companies were producing work for students to pass off as their own.

The companies charge from as little as £15 to almost £7,000 for a PhD dissertation, the QAA found.

Universities routinely use software to spot changes in students' personal writing styles and make clear to them that cheats could miss out on their qualifications.

Staff also help struggling students with their writing and study skills, include students on academic policy and misconduct panels

and improve support for whistleblowers.

QAA chief executive Douglas Blackstock said it was important that students were not "duped by these unscrupulous essay companies".

"Paying someone else to write essays is wrong and could damage their career," he said.

One essay writing company said it had provided essays to several thousand students in the UK last year - of which more than five percent were Oxbridge students.

The company added that whilst its traditional customer base was mainly international students, the number of UK students had increased by a fifth since 2015.

Calls are mounting for the practice to be made illegal as is the case in New Zealand so students who cheat are aware that they are breaking the law.