Recently media reports have indicated that the UK government is taking steps to ban what they describe as ‘Essay Cheat Companies’ from promoting their services within university environments. In our view this move is long overdue as these organisations have been engaged in promoting what can only be described as ‘blatant’ support of student plagiarism for a number of years, which is damaging the quality of higher education and student learning. It is therefore important to understand where the responsibility for this increased prevalence for cheating (plagiarism) rests, which is the central aim of this first of two posts.
When essay mills engage a writer he/she has to agree to a contract prior to being accepted to write for the organisation. An integral part of this contract requires the writer to transfer the copyright of the work to the organisation (essay mill) they will be employed by. One could suggest that this is a reasonable request as the contracts of many organisations outside of the education industry include this provision.
However, as with any contract, both parties are required to identify the conditions they will comply with. Evidence shows that one of the critical conditions agreed to by essay mills is that the student will not be allowed to submit the writers work as part of their studies. Nonetheless, evidence exists, which confirms that essay mills are consistently breaching this condition that they have agreed to in the writer agreement. This can be evidenced from the fact that on occasions the client (student) will provide the essay mill with files containing direct feedback they acknowledge are from his/her university tutor, and offer more money for the amendments to be made.
Of course, one could argue that the writer, based on the contract they have agreed to, could simply reject completing the required amendment. Nonetheless, despite assurances from the firm that the student client may have been warned about plagiarism, if he/she refuses to complete the required amendment too often, their continued income from the essay mill may be reduced, if not cease completely. Thus, as many writers depend on the income derived from these organisations, reluctantly most will simply comply with the organisation’s amendment request, which simply increases the level of cheating by the offending student.
From a student viewpoint, apart from the obvious issue of cheating, other factors also need to be considered. Firstly, there is the issue of cost. A recent BBC report suggested the average cost was around £7,000. However, this cost can escalate considerably when students are studying for a doctorate or PhD. Naturally, this situation increases the level of student loan that will eventually need to be repaid, although one could say that this is solely the fault and responsibility of the student.
Of much more concern is the impact the use of essay mill products has on student learning. Where students are submitting work completed by essay mill writers, including any amendments required, we suggest that the student gains little, if any, knowledge, skills and competences, which damages his/her ability to effectively and efficiently perform their job roles. For example, if a health student relies solely essay mill writers to achieve his/her qualification and acceptance as a professional nurse/social worker, one could argue that their lack of knowledge, skills and competences may adversely affect the quality and standard of their practical skills, thus potentially putting service user outcomes at risk. Similar, although different risks can occur in other sectors of educational learning, including students who are pursuing careers in finance, business and service industries.
Finally, perhaps the most important concern related to students is discrimination. In this respect, while some students simply find a way to add the cost to their student loan (to be repaid later?), it is apparent that student from the higher echelons of society have a better opportunity to avail him or herself of the services offered by essay mills. Thus, in addition to discriminating against those students who work hard and commit themselves to learning and gaining knowledge, it also discriminates against those students who come from less wealthy environments. Furthermore, it is also apparent that a reasonable percentage of the students using the essay mill services are either foreign students who are studying in UK/USA universities, or those students who do not have English as their first language, and who also often come from wealthier families.
Universities and tutors
University students and tutors should also share responsibility for the increased prevalence of essay mills. Universities are becoming increasingly focused on the need to increase their rankings within the global higher educational environment. Therefore, they all; including the ‘premier’ UK universities of Cambridge and Oxford, have become more focused on maximising their student graduation achievements rather than focusing on the achievement of the individual student.
In my experience, it would be immediately apparent to the university, and its tutors, if the work presented was not penned or researched by the student in question. Knowledge of individual students, which should be one of the core factors that enable tutors to engage with learners, is seriously lacking. For example, if the tutor has developed a positive relationship with their students, it should be immediately apparent to the tutor whether work presented was the student’s original work. This can be detected simply from identifying how the style of the work presented compares to previously information known about the student, such as notes, works and conversations. With respect, this is a relatively easy process, particularly in the case of students who have English as a second language.
More importantly, evidence suggests that some tutors, in an effort to supplement their income, are also acting as writers for essay mills, which in our view suggest there is a conflict of interest that needs to be addressed.
We would also argue that the UK government needs to share its responsibility for this move towards the increase in essay mills. The government has been instrumental in introducing league tables for universities. Economically, the level of representation on these tables can have a significant impact on the way university manager’s direct tutor marking, as their main aim is to . The ultimate instruction appears to be for tutors to ensure maximum levels of high grades are awarded to their students. Therefore, one could argue that an increasing number of tutors pay little, if any, attention to what are obvious differentials between the project work presented by students and their knowledge of the student’s language, previous learning capabilities and acquired knowledge.
In my experience, research has confirmed that there is seldom a feedback comment from a tutor stating ‘with respect, this work is far better than the standard I would have expected from my knowledge of your work’, or anything similar. In short, the tutor relationship is not so much focused on encouraging the positive learning development of the individual student, but rather on making sure that a reasonable percentage of the students achieve the high levels of graduation quality the university it seeking. Therefore, it can be argued that the tutor/student relationship today has been damaged by the government’s recent policies aimed at the development of UK universities into ‘World Class’ educational institutions, an objective, which to a certain extent, is being achieved through the covert encouragement of ‘cheating’
Coming in the second post
In the next post related to this issue of we shall consider the ways in which this situation can be resolved.