It takes about three minutes to order a final dissertation for an English literature degree at the UK Essays website. I pick my country, subject and required grade. I go for a 2:1, choose a length – let’s say 5,000 words – a seven-day deadline, and watch the price calculator hit £687 (or £1,236 for a two-day turnaround). Click “next step” and I can enter my topic before being matched with a suitable writer, who will produce an essay “personalised to my requirements”. It would come with a series of promises. “The work we produce is guaranteed to meet the grade you order, or you get your money back.” It will also be “100% free from plagiarism” – and on time.
All of this would be totally legal and, the owners of UK Essays insist, ethical, too – because what its customers are definitely not supposed to do is submit the work as their own. “Our essays … are the best, most useful study aid in the world,” says Daniel Dennehy, chief operating officer at All Answers, the Nottinghamshire company that owns UK Essays. “They increase any student’s understanding of a topic, which subsequently improves their ability to write an excellent, unique answer of their own.”
UK Essays says it sold 16,000 assignments last year, up from 10,000 five years earlier, written by a network of 3,500 researchers. The company’s “fair use policy”, which requires a click away from the order page, spells out the rules. “Even if you did make minor alterations to the researcher’s work, this would still be considered plagiarism,” it warns. But, Dennehy accepts, “I have worked here for nine years and I am not naive enough to think that all our clients use the work correctly.” He declines to estimate what proportion of his customers are cheats.
The growth of these sites, which are known as essay mills, is now troubling the higher levels of government. Jo Johnson, the universities minister, has appealed to student bodies and universities to help tackle so-called “contract plagiarism”, which he sees as a growing threat to academic integrity. New guidelines, to be published in time for the next academic year, are expected to recommend a new sector-wide policy, and the government has not ruled out beefing up the law.
The intervention follows a report published last summer by the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA), which maintains standards in higher education. It found that anti-plagiarism policies were variable across universities, and that fraud law isn’t robust enough to legislate against the misuse of essay mills. It also suggested a ban on advertising, and explored the role of search engines, which present hundreds of results to students looking for essays.
The government believes there are more than 100 mills in operation, churning out anything from B-grade GCSE coursework (£106 on UK Essays) to a 100,000-word PhD in criminal law (£82,238). “But our research suggests it’s more like 1,000 sites,” says Prof Phil Newton, the director of learning and teaching at Swansea University and an expert in academic plagiarism. Previous estimates suggest that more than 20,000 students a year in the UK are paying for essays to get degrees. The true figure may be much higher.
“This is a very fast-moving problem, which the sector and legislation has been slow to address,” Newton adds. “When I started researching it in 2009, I couldn’t believe what was available and how little research had been done. On some sites you can even enter your course code and the name of your lecturer and the writer will tailor an essay to that. To the man on the street,” he adds, “it’s very odd that this sort of thing is legal.”
Universities are equipped to detect old-fashioned, cut-and-paste plagiarism. Software such as Turnitin, which claims 97% of UK universities as customers, flags up passages it identifies in existing sources. But it cannot detect an original essay written by someone else. Even when lecturers suspect foul play, it can be hard to know how to act. “I had one instance recently when a student received a much higher mark than expected,” says a senior lecturer at a London university, who asked not to be named. “His work had a level of fluency and sophistication of thought that hadn’t been seen. But I wasn’t 100% sure, because I think he wrote parts of the essay in his own style to throw me off, so I left it. It’s a minefield.”
Opinion is divided over how to respond, however, and whether tighter rules or laws risk driving would-be cheats to the darker edges of the “model answers industry”, as essay mills prefer to be called. Many students have reported being ripped off with shoddy work, or none at all. But there is also concern that contract plagiarism, while obviously wrong, is a symptom of what critics describe as the commodification of higher education.
International students in the UK now pay between around £15,000 and £40,000 a year in tuition fees. Those from outside the EU paid £4.2bn in fees in 2014-15, almost 30% of universities’ income from fees – and almost 13% of their total income.
Universities depend on foreign students with deep pockets, which is why they are fighting government plans to bring numbers down. Dave Tomar, a former mill writer in the US, says this means universities too often sell places to ill-equipped students, many of whom arrive with limited written English or awareness of British academic norms. “The vast majority of students who cheat aren’t lazy, but struggling,” he says. “They have invested so much that they don’t want to blow it by failing.”
In 10 years, Tomar, 37, says he wrote about 4,000 assignments for customers, including hundreds in Britain. Before he quit in 2013, he says he earned $60,000 (almost £50,000) a year; he says writers generally get about half the essay fee. “Whatever their motivations, this is a symptom, not the illness,” he adds from his home in Philadelphia, where he now writes about education reform after the success of The Shadow Scholar, a book about his former life. “We need a broader conversation about how educational systems are failing these students such that they end up in college way over their heads.”
Now a degree is a commodity, no wonder more students are cheating | Poppy Noor
While studying a language at Cambridge University, Claire (not her real name) wrote essays during her first year, and also understood that most of her customers were not British. “You have a UK system reliant on foreign students while, through the backdoor, companies are devaluing the very degree certificates that attract all that foreign money in the first place,” she says in an email, describing the result as “a wonderful downward spiral of devaluation”.
Newton accepts that, in some places, students arrive without sufficient skills to complete good written work. But he says students know when they are crossing a line, and that penalties for plagiarism are generally tough already (cheats at Swansea are expelled). What has changed, he adds, is the increasing accessibility and slick presentation of many of the sites, which appeal to students who might not otherwise resort to cheating. “The easier it is, the more likely it is to happen,” he says.
Not all essay mills, which began to proliferate over a decade ago, do much to put off would-be cheats. OK Essay, which last year removed adverts from London Underground stations near universities after complaints, claims on its homepage to have more than 10,000 customers. “Looking for experts to ‘Write my essay for me’? Choose us and we won’t disappoint you!” Deep in the terms and conditions, the mill says it will not be liable “for the outcome or consequences of submission [of] the paper to any academic institution”. Nowhere does it explicitly advise against it.
Posing as a struggling history student, I call the customer support line for clarification. “If I want to use the essay as my own work, is that possible?” I ask. “I’m not able to tell you whether it’s possible or not. We just write the paper for you and you can use it for what you want,” the agent says. The company says it is based in Sheffield, but there is no address on the website, which also hides its domain registration details. The terms and conditions say the site is owned by Elabama Inc, a company registered in Panama. “So it would be at my own risk?” I ask. “You can just use it at your own risk – it’s what our disclaimer says on our website. It’s meant to serve as example … You can get it, read it, shake it and if you like it you can use it, if you don’t like it you can fix it to [be] like you want it and use it.” When I call back as a journalist, I am given an email address but none of my questions are answered, and despite further calls and emails, there is no response to the suggestion that the company appears to condone cheating.
Claire wrote for Oxbridge Essays, a prominent site with offices in London. “It was clear to everyone involved what was going on,” she recalls. Yet she found the work stimulating as well as lucrative after quitting a “soul-destroying” temp job. “I didn’t worry too much about the ethics at first because I felt bitter about the fact this was the only way I could find work that was interesting and rewarding,” she says. “I got paid £200 for the first one. I was 19 and that was a lot of money.”
In 2013, the Advertising Standards Authority ruled that Oxbridge Essays had breached its code by guaranteeing “that you will receive at least the grade you order”. The implication of the promise contradicted the company’s terms, which prohibit the submission of its essays, the authority found. Philip Malamatinas, who launched the site in 2006, declines to answer questions. Nor does he respond to Claire’s claim that the company knew what was going on. “We work with thousands of students who come to us having been let down by a system designed to penalise those for whom English is a second language, and who typically pay three or four times as much as UK students in tuition fees,” he writes in a statement. “Sadly, our universities are simply too stretched to provide the same level of support to all and as a result, students are turning to private enterprises to subsidise their educational needs.”
Mills are not the only people making a case for model answers. “I think they’re incredibly valuable, especially for international students,” says Alexander Proudfoot, chief executive of Independent Higher Education (formerly Study UK), which represents more than 130 private institutions. He attended a QAA plagiarism forum before the publication of last year’s report. “We’d be happy for there to be a national database of essays. If you made them accessible then the demand for essay mills goes out the window [see footnote].”
Universities blame others for plagiarism. They need to look at themselves
Newton, who also sat on the forum, is not convinced, preferring “to show students how things are structured and what it looks like to write an essay”. Either way, he adds: “When you can give a precise title and specify the grade and the referencing and sources, that’s something very different.” No essay site I approach will explain why, if their work is only intended to be used as a model, they are so keen to guarantee originality, sometimes two days before a deadline, if not to help students elude plagiarism detection software.
Newton believes part of the solution must be a requirement for more face-to-face and practical assessment. Proudfoot says institutions should find resources for essay-writing and critical-thinking classes, as well as tutorial support for students who “find themselves backed into a corner”. Claire agrees. She gave up when the demands of her own studies left her too busy to write for other students. “My dad also told me, ‘You might not be thinking about the wider repercussions of this now, but think about later,’ and I thought – you know, you might be right.”
• The following footnote was added on 6 March 2017: after publication, Alexander Proudfoot asked us to clarify that when he said “the demand for essay mills goes out the window”, he meant “the argument for essay mills goes out the window”.
Maybe so, but it’s pretty simple to do. Just go on the internet, type “essay writing”, and a host of firms will be clamouring to help with your coursework. “Where A Student’s Life Becomes Easier,” purrs the website UKBestEssays.com; less reassuring is its claim: “We provide piece of mind.”
Indeed, while these companies promise round-the-clock customer support and teams of 200 to 4,000 highly qualified essay-crafters, producing pieces of work that will pass all plagiarism tests, some appear to be more, well, questionable.
Question number one: are they in the UK? Not UKBestEssays. Despite a website showing Union Flags, the girl at the end of the phone says she’s in Delaware in the US. And when the rather distant-sounding man at Essaydom.co.uk is asked if I can visit his office, he says he can’t give me the address because I “might bring the police”.
“We all get tarred with the same brush,” complains Jilly Walden, quality manager at UKEssays.com, based at the same address (in Arnold, near Nottingham) as Degree Essays (www.degree-essays.com) and Law Teacher (www.lawteacher.net)
“Yet, unlike other companies, we are happy to publish our address, and we are happy for students to visit us; we have got academics in-house. Nor do we condone plagiarism. It’s made very clear to clients that we don’t supply essays; we give model answers around which they frame their ideas. We see it as no different to a lecturer pointing students towards a document in a library. As far as we know, 99.9 per cent of customers use our products correctly.”
But it’s hard to believe someone would pay £660 purely for a stimulating read. However, the founder of London-based Oxbridge Essays, Stratos Malamatinas, who says his firm (www.oxbridgeessays.com) gets 10,000-plus orders per year, stands by the ''it’s-just-a-framework’’ stance. “It’s made explicit to our customers that they should use our material merely as inspiration, and they should express themselves in their own words,” he declares.
“That said, 75 per cent of our customers are foreign students who, although talented, can’t express themselves as well in English as in their own language. British universities are happy to take their money, without checking their English. There’s a real greediness among British universities; students are left to struggle, and are forced to turn to a private company, rather than getting help that should be supplied by the university. It’s not just foreign students. Most UK students who come to us are profoundly unhappy with the tuition they get, [with] no formal instruction in the writing and structuring of essays.”
Especially when that essay is 90,000 words.
“I’m fine on research, and I can talk about the subject till the cows come home, but I need guidance in putting material together and expressing it in academic terms,” says Geoff (not his real name), who is doing a PhD in marketing at University College London, and is paying Oxbridge Essays to help him with his 400-page-plus thesis.
“They are writing the guideline, so to speak, and I am mimicking it in my own words. It’s going to take a couple of years and I’ll have paid them a five-figure sum, but it’s worth it. I am aware that some people do just take this kind of work and pass it off as their own – so I don’t want my real name in The Daily Telegraph, in case people think that’s what I’ve done.”
The same applies to “Dan”, a second-year student at Bristol University, who, in his first year, sought outside help with an essay on tragedy in Shakespeare. “I felt like I wasn’t getting much academic direction,” he says. “The number of students at lectures was enormous. I was getting no real feedback.” Instead of buying an essay off the internet, he turned to the tutorial agency Bright Young Things, which spent three and a half hours with him (at £60 an hour) planning his essay. Result? A 2:1 grade, but it was all his own work.
“We don’t write people’s essays, we merely teach them essay-production skills,” maintains Oliver Eccles, one of Bright Young Things’ senior tutors.
That’s not to say that tutors don’t get asked to do a bit of proxy essay-penning, though.
“I’ve had some difficult conversations with parents and students who want me to write the essay,” says Michelle Okin, who runs the tutorial agency Rose Okin (£40-£75 per hour). “But how are they going to stand on their own feet if they’ve always had the stabilisers on?”
It’s a powerful argument. Indeed, many would argue that the spread of tutoring in higher education was inevitable, considering how prevalent it has become in secondary and primary education. But the more immediate question for any student contemplating an essay purchase, is more likely to be – can I get away with it?
The answer is yes, if the work has been written by the kind of brilliant academic mind the websites claim to have on their books (Stratos Malamantinas says he has essay-writers who earn between £20,000 and £70,000 per year).
“If it truly is an original work, then it will get through the plagiarism-detection software,” says Will Murray, whose firm supplies Turnitin, the plagiarism checking system used by most UK universities. “But sometimes the writing has been outsourced to India, or America, and the grammar and expressions will reflect that. I’ve even seen cases where the student has left in the name of the person who actually wrote the essay.”
Ideally, prevention is better than detection. By inviting students to discuss essays, university tutors can monitor the sudden arrival of unfamiliar thoughts and ideas.
“My instinct is very much against the combative 'We don’t trust you’ approach,” says Professor Ward. “Rather than going for the Orwellian system, whereby we monitor our students’ internet traffic, I favour making them understand the only people being ripped off by these short cuts is them.”
Finally, there is always the worry that the immaculately written document you have bought is not as fresh as claimed, and may contain great chunks of pre-plagiarised text that will set off the digital detection sirens.
“So the question,” says Will Murray, “is how confident are you that the essay you are handing in, that has been written by someone you have never met, is 100 per cent original?”