Notwithstanding the rejection of an amendment to the UK’s Higher Education and Research Bill that would have outlawed “cheating services”, political and public concern about essay mills remains at a historic high. Jo Johnson, the minister for universities and science, has urged universities to do more to combat their use. And the media have gorged on tales of student cheating, fed by fatuous surveys and the statistical concoctions of Lord Storey, the Liberal Democrat education spokesman in the House of Lords and the author of the ill-fated amendment to the bill, which passed into law last month.
It is worth recalling that essay mills have not always been considered a problem. In 2009, a House of Commons committee asked whether their operators should be prosecuted. The government responded that it was not worth the trouble. And until recently, the Quality Assurance Agency was equally relaxed. When Storey raised the issue in a letter in 2015, the body’s chief executive apparently replied: “We don’t regard this as a particularly serious problem. The number of people we are talking about is minuscule.”
Nor were the public much bothered. A 2016 petition to Parliament calling for essay mills to be made illegal garnered just 1,587 signatures. This compares with a petition in the same year for the compulsory microchip scanning of deceased pets discovered on railway lines, which attracted 22,510 signatures.
Nevertheless, early last year, the government commissioned the QAA to investigate the scale of the problem with essay mills. Even more startlingly, the QAA completely reversed its opinion in the course of doing so, acknowledging in its August report that essay mills were a growing problem and calling for them to be prevented from advertising and excluded from search engines.
Could it be that an obvious villain is urgently required to divert attention from the real ills of UK higher education? Essay mills seduce gullible students with a rubbish product, according to the report, Plagiarism in Higher Education. Well, maybe, but students are probably more desperate than gullible, and responsibility for that lies with university practice and government policy. Fierce competition between universities for “customers” has led to the admission of some students who struggle to write a postcard, never mind an essay. They plagiarise, copy and paste – as many have been taught to do at secondary schools obsessed with their positions in league tables.
Ultimately, students may feel less ripped off by essay mills than by universities. Prospectuses promise a collegial atmosphere, an unforgettable “student experience” and unrivalled preparation for a rewarding career. In reality, university managers are running a no-frills, bums-on-seats business with costs pared to the bone and tight control imposed on academics by performance measures. Student satisfaction is purchased with lax academic standards: 73 per cent of undergraduates can now expect to graduate with at least an upper second-class degree.
Students are lazy, disorganised and naive, the QAA report suggests; essay mill writers are illiterates, copying and pasting for a pittance. But essay mills thrive on repeat custom and a high reputation honed on social media. Their writers are often young academics frustrated by university career prospects. No surprise, then, that essay mills can produce very good work. Indeed, students sometimes complain that it must be dumbed down to university standards.
Moreover, it is the common lot of junior employees to write academic material that their seniors will pass off as their own. Pressure on academics to publish is huge, and an illustrious co-author who does not relish the inconvenience of writing a paper – or perhaps even of reading it – improves a manuscript’s prospects.
Sometimes companies – notably pharmaceutical companies – write papers for academics to front in academic journals. Indeed, even the furious prose with which the high and mighty of higher education have damned essay mills is almost certainly crafted by anonymous others. And universities’ own guidelines on plagiarism are often copied from others’ websites. This is all plagiarism. But only student plagiarism is deemed unacceptable.
Essay mills speak to millennial students, who acquire their information through the internet and determine its relevance through social media. For them, information as property is an artificial construct, and there is nothing natural about writing an essay to demonstrate learning. They write them simply to satisfy university demand for them – which, in turn, allows universities to satisfy student demand for degrees. It is a simple business arrangement, with which an outsourcing agreement around essay production seems entirely compatible.
Essay mills provide extensive interaction with writers, turning the construction of essays into the kind of social exercise with which modern students are comfortable. Their existence is nothing more than an indicator of the rot in higher education. Eliminating them, even were this possible, would do nothing to address the basic problems: that neither students nor universities are much concerned with learning, and that the government either has not noticed or does not care.
Stuart Macdonald is visiting professor in the School of Management at the University of Leicester and is general editor of the journal Prometheus. A longer version of this article can be found at www.stuartmacdonald.uk.com.