When you work in an industry like mine, it’s to be expected that some less informed individuals on the outside may jump to conclusions and slam the support that “essay mills” give to students, as facilitating “academic dishonesty”.
It’s incredibly frustrating that we are subject to the blanket negative perception of our industry, thanks to an official report that has assessed only a tiny sample of companies that do not reflect the operations, ethics or intentions of the majority.
I’m referring, of course, to the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education report on “essay mills”, which was published in August.
A report like this one only serves to perpetuate the stigma facing students that seeking external help is somehow wrong and underhand; how does that attitude help anyone?
Looking at the list of companies that the report evaluated – none of them represents the UK model answers industry in the slightest, despite it fuelling calls for changes in legislation to outlaw what we do. Many of the companies listed here are small, registered abroad or sole traders. They do not offer ongoing support, and they do not clearly state that plagiarism is unacceptable.
In effect, these companies are not of consequence to the industry, nor do they represent how the majority of students access this kind of support. It’s the equivalent of pitting a service station burger against a taster menu from a Michelin-starred restaurant – the two are incomparable in terms of service, quality and delivery standards.
What the higher education system really needs is a more robust evaluation, not of these charlatan “essay mills” that distort the reality of what we provide, but to look at the broader difficulties faced by university students as a whole.
After all, if students felt supported, inspired and confident enough to go without additional support, pop-up companies registered abroad wouldn’t get this airtime. Instead, the growing numbers of student enquiries suggests that these individuals are being let down by their universities, which do not equip them with the skills they need to produce essays and dissertations entirely on their own.
The 2015 Student Academic Experience Survey paints an interesting picture. Of the students who said that their experience at university was “worse than expected”, 30 per cent of them cite a lack of contact hours as being a primary factor (a recent report indicated that, on average, students receive just 13.9 contact hours per week).
Other complaints include inaccessible teaching staff, too large course groups and poor feedback – so it is clear that there are some steps that universities and their staff can take to balance out these concerns.
The study also points out that students’ perceptions of the universities’ value for money continues to fall, representing one of the main year-on-year differences. Added to that, the perceived financial value of a university degree is falling across all parts of the UK, with just 37 per cent of respondents feeling they receive good value for money, compared with 53 per cent in 2012. Another key aspect identified as having a clear correlation with value is satisfaction, and here we have solid evidence that students do equate contact hours, and indeed general levels of workload, with value.
This is without even mentioning the pressure placed on international students, and how they believe that they are being let down by universities that focus only on their commercial value.
Research into the international student experience is shockingly limited, and more exploration into the quality of international study support is urgently needed. There are many first-hand accounts highlighting what a challenging experience it is to study abroad – both with the cultural differences and the varied expectations of essay-writing in an international institution.
From our own research, more than three-quarters of the students we help (78 per cent) are international students, with a large proportion of them acknowledging that they are not aware of any additional support their own university provides with essay-writing.
This level of student support seems unacceptable and certainly doesn’t warrant the high tuition fees being paid, especially when you consider that international students pay more for their degrees (approximately £4,000 per year more than their domestic counterparts).
I believe that the most successful university model is one that works with our industry rather than sees it as taboo or tries to control it. Accepting that the support students are seeking can be a huge benefit to them, and therefore to overall university results, is both brave and insightful. We embrace working with university tutors and academics to create model questions and answers, a recognised learning tool that helps guide students to success.
I have absolute belief in what we do. Of course there will be some companies out there that bolster the label of “essay mills” and all the connotations that come with it – but what I’d like to see is instead a focus on the students themselves.
After all, they are the ones most affected by the changes we see in higher education – and if independent reviews of student satisfaction are anything to go by, the sector needs to see more support for tutoring, advice and one-to-one guidance from reputable, established and trusted providers.
Daniel Dennehy is chief operations officer at UK Essays.