IT’S SO EASY TO CHEAT FOR A DEGREE IF YOU KNOW HOW
Our research reveals students can get essays written for them
AUNIVERSITY degree from a British higher education institution is a qualification respected across the world.
Yet our investigation exposes just how easy it is for undergraduates to cheat their way through parts of their course.
Employers expect a university degree to guarantee them an employee with experience of bringing together information from a complex array of sources into a coherent, well-thought through piece of work.
Yet our work suggests it may just guarantee the employee can use WhatsApp and have a few hundred pounds to spare.
Posing as a student at Cardiff University, we discovered how easy it was to access “essay mill” services, how professional they are and how hard it is for senior academics to spot their work.
The services promised guaranteed grades with different rates for a first, a 2:1 or a 2:2. They say refunds are available if the grade is not achieved. They do not simply dish out pre-prepared, plagiarised work but will research and write individual pieces for students that are all but impossible for academic supervisors to spot.
It is impossible to say for certain how widespread such cheating is but recent research from Swansea University looked at dozens of studies and found that as many as one in seven recent graduates may have paid someone to undertake their assignment for them.
Although they are banned in the USA and New Zealand, there is no such legislation in the UK, and Cardiff University is one of the respected UK academic institutions that have called the Government to act.
A spokesman told us: “Banning them would send a clear statement to the global higher education sector of the integrity of a UK degree.”
He added: “Essay mills facilitate cheating, undermine the integrity of higher education and do a disservice to the majority of honest students.”
A quick search on popular classified website Gumtree revealed several adverts, all listed as being based in Cardiff, offering everything from short essays to full dissertations.
To show the full range of services these essay mills offer, we posed as a first-year undergraduate looking for help with a history essay and as a third-year student looking for help with a dissertation.
I contacted a senior lecturer at Cardiff University to ask for a generic essay title first-year students might be expected to tackle.
The essay suggested was one many students would be familiar with: How democratic was the Athenian democracy in the classical period?
Posing as a first-year history student using the name Michael Pierce, I asked three services for an essay to be written by the end of the week.
One writer advertising on Gumtree who said they had a masters degree said they could write the essay in three days, charging me £150 for 2,000 words.
If I failed I would be refunded half the total cost but he reassured me I would “definitely” pass.
I never handed over any money for the work I asked for, but several of the writers sent previous examples done for other students.
All of the examples, on a variety of topics, were well written and would easily pass as an authentic student essay.
Choosing a dissertation topic, developing the research and writing it are much more complex and time-consuming than compiling a first-year essay.
However, there were essay mills willing to quote me a price of just a few hundred pounds from one person for a 10,000-word economics dissertation guaranteed to get me a first.
Speaking to another writer, it took just one hour from me asking for an essay to be written, sorting out all the logistics and then being in a position to pay.
Although they advertised themselves as coaches, the service they offered was writing with payment in installations.
The topic I had chosen for my dissertation was around economic growth in China – what the Chinese leadership has called its New Silk Road project.
The first advertiser I contacted offered to write a full 10,000-word dissertation for £450.
Within a few hours, they had sent through two respectable dissertation titles. After picking one (Examination of Housing Price in China: An Econometric Analysis), we got down to prices.
Ahmed, not his real name, said for each 1,000 words the price would be £140 for 1st quality, £90 for 2:1 and £60 for a 2:2.
I asked what would happen if I didn’t get the grade I paid for, and he quickly replied: “I will refund the extra to be charged above [the] real grade.
He added that for example, if I got a 2:1 but I paid for a first I would be refunded £50 for each 1,000 words.
He told me he often writes the dissertations himself, but that he had a number of “colleagues” who worked with him.
Ahmed even sent me some previous samples of two dissertations he had provided.
The whole process was very swift and efficient. It didn’t take long for him to reply to my questions and it felt like he’d answered them several times before.
After raising concerns over WhatsApp, Ahmed was more than happy to talk over the phone the following day to go over the process.
With young children clearly heard crying in the background, he told me he could get the whole dissertation done in around four weeks – and maybe even two to three weeks if I was in a rush. The whole package would cost £450 that I could pay in four instalments.
Feedback from lecturers as the work progressed would be no problem, he said.
After each of the four payments he said he would provide a chunk of the work so I could show my lecturer before he started on the next part.
Any comments they had could be incorporated and the work revised.
Ahmed said he and his team have helped students for more than five years and had “lost count” of how many he had helped.
He told me he was a BA/BSC/ MBA/ research student and that I would be guaranteed at least a 2:1 grade to a first.
I contacted a number of other services listed on Gumtree and they all followed roughly the same process.
I asked for help coming up with a title, and within a few hours a number of choices were sent over and then the question of cost came up.
Everyone I contacted replied quickly and seemed keen to get my business. After telling one I would think about it, they replied a few hours later asking for an update.
Research by Swansea University has found the use of essay mills is rising across the world.
For a study published in Frontiers in Education, Professor Phil Newton from Swansea University, analysed 71 survey samples from 65 studies dating back as far as 1978, covering 54,514 participants.
A screengrab of the WhatsApp conversation during the investigation