Some cheats are enterprising, if not moral

Christopher Bigsby on those who take a creative approach to academic rigour

January 8, 2015

“To thine own self be true,” Polonius says in Hamlet. In the world of higher education, probably not.

In the early 1990s pro-cheating rallies were held in Uttar Pradesh, India. Why not cheat, protesters asked, when the rich simply offered bribes for grades? In 2013 there were riots in Hubei province in China when invigilators tried to prevent cheating in a national exam. Rioters chanted, “There is no fairness if you do not let us cheat.” According to a report by the US educational consulting company Zinch China, 90 per cent of letters of recommendation to Western universities from China were falsified in 2011.

In Australia, a website called MyMaster has been providing papers for international students, some of whom are functionally illiterate. In November last year, The Sydney Morning Herald helpfully identified the worst affected institutions: New South Wales’ leading universities.

In the same month, Susan Xiao-Ping Su, president of California’s Tri-Valley University, was sentenced to 16 years in prison for 31 charges, including visa fraud. She had netted $5.9 million (£3.8 million) in fees. She bought a Mercedes but squandered the rest.

Some of the UK’s ‘most sought after minds’ are, apparently, willing to take time out from teaching to produce work guaranteed as ‘plagiarism free’ if not error free (a sample begins, ‘The Canterbury Tales is an undoubtedly a richly textured work’)

Scientific American recalls the case of psychologist Marc Hauser of Harvard University, whose article “Costs of Deception: Cheaters Are Punished” proved ironically prescient since it was based on fabricated data. In surveys, about 75 per cent of US college students admit to having cheated in their college careers. In 2012, about 70 Harvard students were forced to withdraw after an investigation into cheating on a course. Appropriately enough, the course was an introduction to the US Congress, one of whose members, Arizona Republican Rick Renzi, was imprisoned in 2013 for conspiracy, racketeering and money-laundering.

It was the comedian George Carlin who remarked that honesty may be the best policy, but, by elimination, dishonesty is the second-best. It was certainly a principle embraced by Richard Nixon, of whom Johnny Carson once remarked, “I hear that whenever someone in the White House tells a lie, Nixon gets a royalty.” For Harry Truman, Nixon was a “no-good, lying bastard. He can lie out of both sides of his mouth at the same time, and if he ever caught himself telling the truth, he’d lie just to keep his hand in.”

The US is currently the 17th least corrupt country out of 175, not a boast you tend to hear much about in the State of the Union address. The UK, incidentally, comes 14th. Hurrah for us. Denmark and New Zealand are first, but their economies are based on pigs and sheep.

In the UK, 45,000 students in 80 higher education institutions were caught cheating over a three-year period to 2011, according to an investigation by a national newspaper. That same year, 30,000 were shown to have cheated on their university applications, mostly in their personal statements, which turned out not to be so personal.

Which leads me to the good people of Oxbridge Essays, who are willing to write personal statements, undergraduate and graduate essays along with dissertations. If you are wondering who produces them, it is sister company Academic Minds, which hires “the most sought after minds in the United Kingdom”, evidently to be found in Oxford and Cambridge, although, in extremis, this is extended to graduates of “red-brick” universities. Apparently these recruits are willing to take time out from teaching to produce work somewhat strangely guaranteed as “plagiarism free” if not error free (an online sample essay begins, “The Canterbury Tales is an undoubtedly a richly textured work” [sic]).

Understandably, this does not come cheap. At time of writing, an American studies undergraduate essay of 2,000 words guaranteed to be of first-class quality costs £805 for 24-hour delivery. An MA dissertation of 15,000 words will cost £4,500 for the same service.

A PhD is, of course, more expensive. Although it might take the student three years to write one of publishable quality, Oxbridge Essays can provide a 100,000-word one in four days – a snip at £45,065. Four days! Grace Mugabe took a whole two months to write hers.

What is in it for those original-minded Oxbridge academics shaping essays and dissertations to order on their intellectual lathes? Well, they can earn from £2,000 to £4,000 a month, which is a fair number of bottles of port.

Oxbridge Essays claims to have featured in The Times, The Guardian, The Telegraph and The Independent, and so it has, though not favourably. Times Higher Education has been writing about this and other such companies for nearly a decade, which goes to show what influence THE has. But, then, THE pays less than Oxbridge Essays. Believe me.

It may be you are a little doubtful about the ethics of this and, indeed, the website does ask, “Is it cheating?” Happily, the answer is that ordering what is described as a “model essay” is evidence that “you are a hard-working” and “conscientious student” who has been “let down by their university”. Lest doubts continue, there is the reassurance that “although using our service is not cheating, and you have nothing to hide… we still take your privacy very seriously”. An earlier version assured users that “we never share details of your order with your university”. Have no fear, though, the process is “100 per cent legal”.

Oxbridge Essays is a member of the Oxbridge Research Group, which is not for people coming together to cure cancer or explore the Herzegovina Question, but an organisation that in 2010 approached Nicholas Bamforth, an Oxford law don, asking him to restructure, edit and add 30 case histories to a thesis to be submitted by a student. The fee was to be “substantial” and “open to negotiation”. As it happened, he was a proctor responsible for policing precisely such companies whose use was in breach of the university’s rules and not merely ordinary everyday morality.

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