Logging on to her computer, Kaiesha Page had a long night ahead of her. There was a 2,000-word university essay on international politics to be done.
She read the title: ‘What impact has the war on terror had on the Middle East?’ and dived in. She was confident of a good grade. The subject greatly interests her, and it’s one on which she’s widely read.
It would take Kaiesha, 28, who is studying for a masters degree in political communications at Cardiff University, around two days to complete the assignment, making sure she referenced her arguments with well-researched citations.
All a student has to do is give details of their assignment, a word count and deadline. They can even choose their grade; a 2:1 undergraduate essay from the cheaper sites costs around £30, but others can charge thousands [File photo]
The problem is, Kaiesha will never know what grade the paper gets. She will not receive any feedback, nor the satisfaction of knowing whether her hard work was appreciated.
For the essay was written for another student to submit for their degree and pass off as their own. Kaiesha will receive an £80 fee for her efforts, which, simply put, will enable someone else to cheat through their degree.
Over the past few years, there has been an explosion in the number of online businesses offering essay-writing services. These are known as essay mills, where students can pay someone else to complete their coursework.
So prevalent has the industry become, it is worth more than £100 million.
It is difficult to know how many students cheat in this way but in 2016, universities watchdog the Quality Assurance Agency found approximately 17,000 instances a year.
Kaiesha Page, above, will never know what grade the paper gets. She will not receive any feedback, nor the satisfaction of knowing whether her hard work was appreciated
However, the figure is thought to be far higher, with a recent study by Swansea University, based on interviews with more than 54,500 students from around the world, finding 15.7 per cent admitted to cheating between 2014 and 2018.
This means about one in seven recent graduates may have paid someone to do their written work for them.
Although universities have strict policies against cheating, essay mills are surprisingly not illegal and widely advertised. There are posters and leaflets on campuses and an internet search will bring up thousands of firms.
These companies exploit a legal loophole, with disclaimers saying they are to be used as a study guide only, while simultaneously advertising ‘guaranteed grades’ and ‘plagiarism free’.
All a student has to do is give details of their assignment, a word count and deadline. They can even choose their grade; a 2:1 undergraduate essay from the cheaper sites costs around £30, but others can charge thousands.
For example, a 30,000-word PhD-level dissertation on medicine costs £22,416 on UK Essays. Many of these companies are based abroad, in Eastern Europe, India and East Africa, but there are some using British writers like Kaiesha. She knows it was unethical but as a self-funded masters student, the money was a help.
‘I admit I was naive,’ she says. ‘I saw a writing job advertised on the recruitment website PeoplePerHour. I applied and then learned it was to write an academic assignment. I felt as I’d already accepted the work, I couldn’t turn it down as I might not get future work.’
Kaiesha graduated with a first-class degree in history from the University of Aberystwyth in 2011, and, using this knowledge, has written five essays for other students over the past two years, on topics such as British politics and history.
‘I felt bad when I realised what I was doing,’ she says. ‘As a student myself, I can see how it’s compromising the system. When I was an undergraduate, essay mills weren’t heard of, but I’d never have used one anyhow as I wouldn’t want to produce work that wasn’t mine. It defeats the point of study.
‘But equally I can see why people write for these companies — it’s regular work that fits around your own studies and, with student loans mounting up, it’s very tempting.’
These companies exploit a legal loophole, with disclaimers saying they are to be used as a study guide only, while simultaneously advertising ‘guaranteed grades’ and ‘plagiarism free’. An Alamy stock photo is pictured above for illustrative purposes only [File photo]
Dr Thomas Lancaster, a senior teaching fellow in computer sciences at Imperial College London and a leading UK expert on essay cheating, says essay mills pose a ‘massive risk’ to universities’ reputations.
‘We want employers to think we’re delivering skilled workers, not someone who has paid someone else to act on their behalf.
‘It not only jeopardises academic integrity but there’s a risk to the public in many professions if people aren’t properly qualified.
‘Imagine a nurse who miscalculates the amount of medication because she cheated her way through her degree. It could cost lives.
‘There are even cases of students being blackmailed by essay mill companies, who say: “Unless you pay more, we will report you to your university.” ’
As part of his research, Dr Lancaster says he has already identified 30,000 instances of students purchasing bespoke essays, from companies all over the world. A third of these were bought by ostensibly bright, capable students at Russell Group universities — the leading 24 universities including Cambridge, Oxford, Durham and Bristol.
‘I think people have always found a way to cheat if they want to,’ he adds. ‘But what’s changed is the prevalence of these services.’
There have been calls to make essay mills illegal, but as many are based overseas, it would be difficult to enforce.
So what can be done to protect the integrity of universities, and remove temptation from students?
Dr Lancaster says: ‘We should focus on getting rid of the advertising, particularly on social media.
‘Students should also have to present and answer questions about their work. When I studied at Oxford, I would have three one-hour tutorials a week and exams at the end of the year. In that environment it would have been impossible for me to not know my stuff.’
A recent study by Swansea University, based on interviews with more than 54,500 students from around the world, finding 15.7 per cent admitted to cheating between 2014 and 2018 [File photo]
So why do students resort to cheating?
‘Probably the main reason is pressure. They’re investing a lot of time and money. Do they risk wasting the £9,250 yearly tuition fee or take a gamble and spend £100 to pass? I can see why it is tempting.’
It was this pressure that led Kelly Jenkins, 23, to pay £216 for an essay during the final year of her degree in economics and finance at the University of Hull in 2017.
‘I admit I took the easy way out,’ she says. ‘I was studying for a four-year course with a year working in industry. I found returning to academia hard and felt overwhelmed as I’d also started a new course on accounting.
‘I had an essay, one of four for the year, on the theory of positive accounting. I didn’t feel I could do it. I had a job lined up on a graduate scheme with a bank. I had to get a 2:1 or I would have lost it.’
Kelly, from Lincolnshire, says she also struggled as she was working 20 hours a week as a waitress and received no financial help.
‘My parents earned enough for me to only get the minimum student loan of £8,700, which only covered my rent. It was at work where I met someone who wrote for an essay mill. I hadn’t heard of them before, so I started to research them.’
Eventually, Kelly settled on a company called the Essay Writing Service UK which, she said, had good reviews online. ‘I filled in an online form and specified a 2:1 for £216. A first was almost double this at £430.
‘You pay upfront. I was told I’d get my first draft in two days. You’re not told who the writer is.’
Kelly says she was disappointed by what she received. ‘It was clear the writer didn’t have English as their first language. There were huge paragraphs that didn’t make sense. If I’d submitted it, it wouldn’t have been a pass.
‘I asked for changes — there weren’t enough references, only three in the whole piece and there was supposed to be three each paragraph. What came back later was no better. I started to think it wasn’t worth the effort and was taking longer than if I just wrote it myself, which is what I did in the end. I didn’t get my money back.
‘I’m sure not many people do, as these companies rely on [customers] not making a fuss because they want to be discreet.’
Kelly says she regrets what she did. ‘What I submitted ended up being my own work, which, now, I am glad of. I can say that I got my degree, and my job, without cheating.’
Although some students may receive an essay good enough to submit, online message boards are full of similar complaints.
It is difficult to know how many students cheat in this way but in 2016, universities watchdog the Quality Assurance Agency found approximately 17,000 instances a year [File photo]
One student wrote: ‘Due to tight schedule I paid £3,000 to UK Essays. They told me they would guarantee a merit for a 10,500-word dissertation. But when I got the first results, it was a fail.’
Another told how they paid £150 to an unnamed essay mill but never received the work. They were then told to pay another £450. They eventually paid an extra £250 but never received the essay.
He wrote: ‘I received absolutely no coursework and I paid these thugs a staggering £400 for something that hadn’t even existed.’
Google says they are ‘careful not to limit what information people are able to find’, with a spokesman adding that in terms of their paid- for adverts, ‘we don’t allow the promotion of products or services that are designed to enable dishonest behaviour such as essay writing’.
One of the largest essay-mill companies is UK Essays — owned by Barclay Littlewood, 40, who established it in Nottingham in 2003 after training as a barrister. Chief operating officer Daniel Dennehy says they are providing a service through a legitimate business and are not there to be used as a cheating tool.
‘We provide 12,000 orders a year. There are benefits in having an example answer. The vast majority of customers use our product correctly. But we’re not naive enough to say they sometimes don’t.
‘Students are looking for help. Contact time at university with tutors is down and for the money they’ve spent, students aren’t happy and are looking to achieve the best grade they can.’
Another main site is Oxbridge Essays, set up in 2005 by brothers James and Philip Malamatinas, then aged 19 and 21, while Philip was at Birmingham University.
The company actively seeks to recruit Oxbridge graduates and charges around £600 for a first-class undergraduate essay delivered in six days.
Over the past few years, there has been an explosion in the number of online businesses offering essay-writing services. These are known as essay mills, where students can pay someone else to complete their coursework [File photo]
Cambridge graduate Rebecca Mazie, 34, who received a 2:1 in Humanities in 2005 and a MPhil in 2006, wrote 15 essays for the site between 2006 and 2008.
Rebecca, originally from Cornwall but now living in Beijing, says students are ‘short-changing’ themselves. ‘The company specifically hired Oxbridge graduates; that was their selling point. They would send emails with topics, the number of words and the fee. I got around £100 for an essay.
‘I wrote about history, art history, anthropology and sociology. I was working full-time after my degree in a library and not making a huge amount. I had friends working for essay mills more seriously and it was their main income.’
At the time, Rebecca didn’t have a moral problem with what she did but now feels differently. ‘I didn’t see it as my responsibility what people did with the essays I wrote. I felt it was on their consciences whether they submitted them as their own.
‘Now I feel students aren’t learning anything. They’re paying more than £9,000 a year but, if you let other people write for you, what’s the point?’
With such widespread cheating, there are growing calls for something to be done.
Last September, the Russell Group published a letter calling for essay mills to be outlawed, as they are in New Zealand, Australia and 17 U.S. states. The Advertising Standards Authority recently upheld complaints against three essay mills — UK Essays, Essay Writing Service UK and Oxbridge Essays — that the firms’ websites were downplaying the risks of students handing in purchased essays as their own.
So far, the Government has resisted calls to legislate against essay mills, with Education Secretary Damian Hinds instead saying last month that he wants Google to take down ‘unethical’ sites in ‘black market essay writing’ and for PayPal to stop processing their fees.
Although universities have strict policies against cheating, essay mills are surprisingly not illegal and widely advertised. There are posters and leaflets on campuses and an internet search will bring up thousands of firms [File photo]
PayPal said: ‘At PayPal, we carefully review accounts that are flagged to us for possible violations of our policies, as well as UK laws and regulations.
‘An internal review is already under way looking at the implications of essay-writing services. We would be happy to talk to the Department of Education about their concerns.’
The Department for Education says that although internet companies are taking steps to remove hundreds of adverts, universities ‘have a role to play’ and should ‘introduce honour codes’ for students to say they won’t cheat.
There is also hope that software, which can compare a student’s writing against their other work to see if it is their own, will act as a deterrent in the future.
But, for now, there is little way for university tutors to know whether their students have written the essays they are marking and, ultimately, if they have earned their degree through hard work or deception.
Kelly Jenkins asked for her name to be changed to protect her current employment position
Additional reporting: Stephanie Condron