Rule abiders and hard workers look away. For the 96% of students who play by the rules, essays mean spending countless hours scouring library shelves, cross referencing pages of notes and touching up bibliographies. But on average, at least one person in their class will have handed in their submission in a fraction of the time. The piece is original, the citations correct, the research even of good quality – but they didn’t write it. It’s from an essay mill.

The concept is simple. Let’s consider an exemplar scenario. Imagine we have a student called Bill who is in his third year studying politics at a Russell group university. It’s the autumn term and he is set his first assignment, 3500 words on the collapse of the Callaghan government (some sympathy here), to be delivered in 21 days time. But with work piling up from other tutors and social commitments at the weekends, Bill is concerned that his essay won’t be handed in on time, thereby incurring a penalty with a potentially damaging impact on his final grade. So rather than embarking on long tedious hours of research online or maybe heading to the university library, Bill googles “essay mill”. A plethora of search results come up. Click on any and the offer is marvellous; just fill out a form with your specification and deadline, pay (anything from £20 to c £600) and in as little as three hours* he has an essay ready for submission, complete with footnotes and bibliography. Phew!

Except there is one small problem. It will come as no surprise to you to learn that Bill did not pull off this seemingly impossible sleight-of-hand unaided, but by farming out his homework to a professional essay writer.

Bill is by no means alone. Only three years ago he would have been one of an estimated 115,000 students making use of such services. No that is not a typographical error. With around 2.5 million students enrolled on higher education courses in the UK, that’s over 1 in 25 that have resorted to contract cheating.

The presence of essay mills is ever growing. In June 2020 a Quality Assurance Agency report estimated the number of websites operating to be “well in excess of” 1000. Even more sinister are the aggressive tactics companies use to exploit vulnerable students. There are a whole heap of incentives being offered: from 24/7 hotlines, money back “guarantees” if not 100% satisfied to rafts of positive reviews and testimonies from satisfied customers.

There is even a “Go Compare” style site of the essay writing world, UKtopwriters.com which lists an updated chart of the best five services. Ranked first at the time of writing is Cyprus based UK Writings, self described as “The best essay writing service in the UK” , boasting 206 active writers who are “experts in their chosen field” and according to its webpage have an average score of 9.5 out of 10. Services are not just limited to writing essays but even extend to creating powerpoint presentations and other coursework, essentially everything stop short of sitting exams on pupils’ behalf.

Many essay writing services argue that their purpose is to help struggling students rather than complete work for them. Some use marketing disguised as FAQs to explain why their service is both legitimate and necessary. Another highly rated site, Boomessays.com cites both a lack of sleep and knowledge as reasons why students should turn to its writers. It says: “People who think that sleep deprivation is due to nights out partying are dead wrong. College kids are often forced to pull all-nighters just to be able to study for all their exams so there will be the occasional paper they won’t be able to write properly or submit in time.”

It continues: “There’s bound to be some things that not everyone will grasp fully. That can push some students into a panic because they think they’ll fail. Unless they choose to hire an academic writing service that can help them out in their time of need.”

Even within the far-fetched reasoning and false dilemmas presented here, there is no questioning the burden within higher education among staff and students. But perhaps a lot of the energy is misdirected. The QAA study found that many universities had reported difficulties using conventional plagiarism scans to detect contracted essays, which is of course unsurprising given that the work is indeed original albeit not the student’s. Yet hours are spent in the classroom drilling how to credit other people’s work and correctly cite sources, not just for moral reasons regarding intellectual property, but as my Classical Chinese teacher once told me, as a mark of academic discipline. I distinctly recall one lecturer at my university spending over half an hour stressing the importance of placing a full stop at the end of a footnote!

It’s no wonder all this comes at the expense of failing to detect real academic fraud. Of the several key findings in the QAA report was the lack of awareness in the sector of the scale of contract cheating, in addition to the lack of resources available with which to spot it. Lecturers have the impossible task of keeping a personal of all their pupils amid increasing class sizes and reduced contact hours.

Upcoming legislation promised by the Government via the Skills and Post-16 Education Bill will do some of the heavy lifting in terms of outlawing cheating sites. Under the new law proposed it will become an offence to “provide, arrange or advertise contract cheating services for financial gain”, a measure clearly aimed at providers rather than consumers. Such action will not come into effect until next spring, with the Government anticipating no prosecutions until 2023.

But as the QAA study outlined, legal deterrents need to be supported by a culture of prevention in universities. While many hours of my time in higher education were dedicated to learning the Chicago system and italicising book titles, the concept of buying your whole essay was something that went completely ignored and therefore surely goes unnoticed. While standard plagiarism isn’t something to be encouraged in the first place, it is noteworthy that the student who fails to correctly quote the page of a journal or add “et al” for works by multiple authors is penalised more than their counterpart who simply paid someone else to do it for them.

*UK Writings , Ox Essays and Boom essays all claim to be able turn work around in three hours

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