In a world where education is a commodity, why not subcontract your PhD?

In trading off plagiarism, essay-writing companies undermine basic goods in education, beginning with critical, independent thinking. But in reducing students to consumers, they may also be giving them a crash course in the prevailing attitude to education.
Samir Jeraj Heather McRobie
19 February 2011

In trading off plagiarism, essay-writing companies undermine basic goods in education, beginning with critical, independent thinking. But in reducing students to consumers, they may also be giving them a crash course in the prevailing attitude to education.

Go to a popular graduate recruitment website, and one of the perennial job adverts, usually amongst a generally scarce listing of graduate jobs, will be adverts for ‘freelance writers’ and ‘freelance researchers’ where you can “earn up to £4000 a month”.  £4000 a month, to do what they taught you at university - to research; to write - sounds like the dream job to most recent graduates, as un- or under-employed young people scrape through the recession, targeted on the one hand by joblessness and by cuts and reforms to services aimed at young people, and on the other by student loan debts. But a closer inspection of these websites reveals an entire industry of plagiarised essays, theses and even PhDs, sold to students to pass off as their own work.   

One company claims to employ “over 2,000 academic experts from the very best UK universities” to produce ‘custom-made’ essays for the customer, essays which they guarantee will not be on plagiarism databases.  At least six other UK-based companies make similar claims. The companies typically walk a line between reassuring the ‘customer’ the essay or dissertation will be “custom-made”, “100% plagiarism free”, and that the service will be “confidential” - whilst simultaneously attempting to deny that they are a plagiarism service.  One company, for instance, claims that “our model essays and dissertations are meant to be ‘learning aids’ which students use to improve their understanding”. But none of the ‘custom-made essays’ companies we looked at provided any explanation of how they take measures to prevent their ‘customers’ handing in the essays they bought as their own. Moreover, their promise that the plagiarism will go undetected seems accurate: a recent study on cyber-plagiarism and other forms of academic cheating found that ‘ghostwritten’ essays was one of the hardest types of plagiarism for universities to detect and thus punish.

It is difficult to quantify how widespread the use of these plagiarism services is, although a study by Rutgers University suggests that those availing themselves of these services could be as high as 40% of students. Unsettling first-hand accounts from the anonymous workers of these companies suggest that students have graduated with entirely plagiarised theses, even PhDs.

Some universities, meanwhile, have begun to confront these plagiarism companies -- Oxford University’s proctors have, for example, changed their statutes to make it an offence for students at the university to work as ‘freelance writers’ for companies such as Oxbridge Essays.

However widespread it may or may not be, anyone who cares about the education system must be concerned by a scenario in which broke graduates essentially sell their minds so that a student who has the money to buy an essay can take credit for somebody else’s work. These companies are obviously a serious concern. For their part, the essay-writing companies themselves argue that the fact that students feel the need to buy essays shows the lack of supervision students are given, and places the blame on the education system rather than the student.  

Yet, for all of the corrosive effect of these companies on educational ethics, it is hard not to sympathise with graduates who write for them. The alternatives during a recession can be grim, with reality falling far below the expectations of students with crippling debts. For those hoping to embark on a career in public affairs or politics, the route after University is unpaid internships in London with the great and the good but cash-strapped NGOs, charities, and other public bodies. (A former manager of mine referred to this phenomenon as “the dark side of the NGO”).

Temping once provided a relatively stable way to gain some cash and learn basic office skills and etiquette, but declining numbers of temp roles and increasing graduate unemployment has seen a shift in temp work towards catering work and the privatised care sector. Since 1997, apprenticeships have become a more common route for young people, but the emphasis largely remains on skilled trades rather than professions, and the traditional divide/prejudice between ‘academic’ and ‘vocational’ training still persists. Pay is still also an issue with the minimum wage in the first year of an apprenticeship set at £2.50, then increasing to the minimum wage thereafter.

Private tutoring to schoolchildren is another mini education-industry that has been booming during the recession, as upper-middle-class parents take their children out of private education but supplement their children’s education with tuition readily supplied by a stream of under-employed graduates. Perhaps it could be argued that it is overly simplistic to make any distinction between ‘legitimate’ private tuition and ‘illegitimate’ plagiarism, as though the writing of custom essays is somehow uniquely ‘unethical’ in terms of how it unfairly advantages students who have the money – or whose parents have the money – to buy help.  (Moreover, anecdotes from friends who work as private tutors attest that it is not unheard of for private tuition to slip over into writing work for the student to hand in as their own).

Both these phenomena, so often supplied by recent under-employed graduates, clearly demonstrate the ironies of being a young person during the recession. Recent graduates turn to ‘tutoring’ (or, cheating for) university students who are desperate to ‘get’ their degree so that they can enter a job market in which having a university qualification is increasingly a prerequisite for employment. When these new graduates also find themselves un- or under-employed, what then? Tutor and cheat for students the year below them? In this context essay-writing companies could be seen as a kind of pyramid scheme that exploits the victims of intergenerational injustice - those who did not cause the recession, but who are and will continue to disproportionately pay for it, both in terms of youth unemployment, and in terms of the mass act of national debt transference that will be enacted through the higher education reforms, which will effectively transfer twice the national per capita debt straight into the bank accounts of future students, for them to ‘pay off’ when they graduate – despite the fact that this debt was run up largely by their parents’ generation and before they themselves were old enough to vote.

Put in context

Underneath the immediate dilemmas raised by plagiarism (and the proliferation of private tutoring), lies a more fundamental question: what does this tell us of the changing attitude to education?  While universities are eager to condemn the exploitative and unethical nature of essay-writing companies, the same institutions are claiming they have been ‘forced’ to charge the maximum fees under the new higher education funding system. And in contrast to their students and some university lecturers who occupied buildings in protest in campuses across the country, university proctors and governing bodies have generally been compliant with the Browne Report’s game-changing plans to overhaul education.  Next to the unethical nature of withdrawing funding from the humanities and complying with the destruction of education as a public good, the ‘unethical’ nature of individual acts of plagiarism looks quite paltry.

Of course, the plagiarism pedalled by essay-writing companies is highly unethical, and undermines one of the basic goods of education: to teach young people to think critically and independently, to parse information and produce work to deadlines, a skill necessary both for their future careers and their life as citizens.  But even more worrying is the perfect fit these practitioners have with the prevailing official view of education: that education is just another commodity on the market, irrelevant to any higher social good.  

The Browne report is peppered with language on student 'choice' in which students are 'discerning' and will make 'choices' over which university they go to.  Under this schema, universities are meant to compete in the education-market for the 'custom' of these 'discerning' consumers whose exclusive interest is in ‘value for money’. This seep of the language of choice into education is paradigmatically neo-conservative. It offers false ‘freedom’ in the name of the free-market. Under the new system, prospective students are being told: ‘here is a credit card with £40,000 on it. Get it. Spend it however you like! You're free because you get to choose which university to spend it on! But then you have to pay it off.’  One US study notes one consequence of consumerist ideas on education and plagiarism as follows: “a sense of themselves as consumers may drive some students to purchase a paper or to use the time and effort required to write a paper as an excuse for plagiarizing”.

In such a climate, essay-writing companies might be seen as only the dark underside of a way of thinking that the Coalition government is presenting as legitimate: the student is a consumer, education is a transaction, and freedom is what you can charge for on your credit card.

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