It’s not essay mills that are doing the grinding

Eliminating cheating services, even if it were possible, would do nothing to address students’ and universities’ lack of interest in learning, says Stuart Macdonald

May 25, 2017
opinion illustration
Source: Eleanor Shakespeare

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.

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Reader's comments (5)

I think the worry about degrees not reflecting academic achievement is silly. What is a third or a "pass" supposed to represent? An average persons ability to complete the course? If that is the case they would expect people to get 2:1s most of the time because nearly all students pick their strongest subject and hence should all be "better than average". I have never felt degree classifications were supposed to differentiate students from each other but intended to say "they have acquired knowledge up to this standard". I do think universities fail to pass on important study skills and knowledge before throwing students into the deep end. We are often expected to simply figure out how to construct a good essay or report with minimal guidance. Unfortunately this learning process is undermined with the knowledge that this "practice" is graded and can affect our future prospects.
Surely employers actually bear some responsibility? By refusing to invest in a serious way in on-the-job training and also requiring a 2:1 for jobs that manifestly have no need of a degree at all they push many on to a path to which they are not particularly suited, and in which they are not particularly interested, with utilitarian results.
I still do not understand what the problem is supposed to be. Essays are usually part of the coursework and contribute maybe 5% towards the final coursemark at best. Spending money on buying an essay for such a small contribution is just stupid. Also, students, who do not practice essay-writing because they buy them from essay mills, will do worse in the actual exams and therefore get the just punishment. It is actually quite self-regulating ...
With the oncoming fourth industrial revolution of artificial intelligence there will be less need for universities.
@Dr. Victor Frankenstein - that depends on the course - some have far more than 5% as coursework. I've seen modules vary from 100% exam, to 100% coursework - with everything in between. And, for most (all?) students in HE, the largest single item of assessment, the thesis/ major project / call it what you will, is all effectively coursework, and something that can be bought.

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