The problem of plagiarism, although not new, has gained new prominence in the internet era. The trivial ease of commissioning a bespoke essay has arisen at a time of high tuition fees and growing inequality in England and the US, obliging increasing numbers of students to balance paid work with a process of degree acquisition that they regard as fundamentally transactional and in which failure is unthinkable.
But these trends have also fuelled the expansion of another industry that, so far, has received much less attention: private tuition. Of course, this also has a long history in education, but its principal “market” has usually been school-age students. In recent years, though, agencies catering specifically to university students have begun to emerge, and mainstream tuition platforms host both school and university-level tutors. And it isn’t only undergraduates that are using such services: master’s and doctoral students are increasingly doing so, too.
I know this because I have worked as a private tutor for a number of years, supplementing my erratic income as an insecurely employed academic. I’ve worked for a number of agencies and have taken on UK university students at every level.
I love teaching, so I can’t say that I don’t enjoy my work (and it can be very financially rewarding, with PhD-level tuition commanding rates of at least £50 per hour). But it has revealed some disturbing sides to UK higher education. Some of my clients were just having trouble with one particular assignment, or were determined to push their marks a grade higher. Others, though, were struggling so fundamentally that I was shocked that they had been admitted in the first place.
This is particularly true with regard to master’s and PhD students, some of whom were barely capable of work at undergraduate level. Given that doctoral work is based on independent study, the level of support that some of my students needed suggested that something had gone very wrong at either the admissions or research training stage.
None of the agencies I have worked for offered essay-writing services, and none of my clients have asked me to do anything that comes close to plagiarism. Most of the time, my work has involved teaching study and writing skills, together with commenting on drafts at a much more detailed level than most academics are required or willing to do.
Even so, my experience has raised troubling ethical questions. First, for how long should a tutor continue to take a student’s money if there is no possibility of their passing? For several years, I worked with an overseas PhD student whose writing was barely A-level standard. At first, I thought this was a language issue, but, over time, it became clear that he was fundamentally unable to understand the methodology he was supposed to be using and had virtually no facility with theory. And despite the best efforts of his supervisor to help him, his research question was ultimately ill-conceived. As he became ever more desperately dependent on me, I felt morally compromised in financially benefiting from his hopeless predicament.
The incentives are all the more perverse when you work for an agency, as I once did, that monitors its tutors in terms of how many hours their clients book. This created a clear inducement to cultivate dependency in the student, even when they had simply booked me to resolve a minor problem with a specific assessment. This was something I was both unable and unwilling to do.
Such issues are not confined to private tutors: they occur throughout industries where individuals pay for private help. Psychotherapists, for example, have a financial inducement to create dependence in their clients, and may continue to work with them even when the therapy will not divert them from a path towards personal disaster. Yet the dangers in that case are mitigated by well-established ethical codes of conduct, as well as processes of external monitoring. There is no such oversight for private tutors – of adult students, at least.
Part of the problem is that the use of private tutors at university level is rarely acknowledged by either students or tutors. The very fact that I am writing this piece anonymously tells you something about such tutoring's lack of respectability. But when there is discreet silence, tutors and the agencies they work for can only fall back on their own integrity. And in a context of brutal inequality and precarious employment, there are always financial temptations to abandon one’s own standards.
Of course, academics need to fight back against the social and political trends that have created the conditions for the need for private tutors. But we also need to accept their existence, for now. That means universities and agencies collaborating to set the ethical guidelines that tutors and their clients so desperately need.
The writer has chosen to remain anonymous.