As a retired academic, I do occasional proof-reading or editing – the latter involves making suggestions for better explanation of the writer’s arguments.
I am sometimes approached by students having difficulty with developing good writing skills, or who are the victims of inadequate supervision by university staff, and then I will give them more help with research techniques.
What I would not do is write an essay or dissertation for them. Yet it seems that there are plenty who will, for an appropriate fee.
Many institutions now assess students through a mixture of exams and supervised reports, giving individuals who suffer from exam stress a means of showing what they can do without pressure. But this has also opened the door for unprincipled academics to benefit.
I can make a good guess at when these so-called ‘cheat sites’ began. When I worked as a lecturer in the early 2000s, I helped a number of students from abroad, and UK students who might be mildly dyslexic, whose written English skills were not quite up to standard.
Many made good progress, but there were some whose progress appeared spectacular, going from struggling to flowery and sophisticated English in their essays. Surprisingly, their email correspondence remained misspelled and ungrammatical.
I suspected they were not producing the material themselves, but I could not prove it. The online tool that universities use to detect plagiarism will only pick up phrases from published texts. Later, I discovered the ‘cheat sites’, which, for a fee, will write anything for students from an undergraduate essay to a PhD thesis.
These sites have become increasingly glossy and professional-looking. One even has FAQs for people thinking of working for them, describing its services as perfectly legal as their writers are only providing students with ‘model answers’ they can work from. If a student passes the work off as their own, that’s their crime, not the essay providers.
This is equivocation – if what they do is not illegal, it’s certainly immoral. Interestingly, this same organisation seems unpopular with the writers it employs as it pays badly, but none of them seem to question the ethics of students awarded degrees for someone else’s work.
There is a problem in the increasingly commercial world of higher education that lecturers have to look after so many students that they cannot always give them the time they need.
The other problem is that degrees are regarded as a necessary step to well-paid employment. Nowadays, many employers question the view that graduates have the skills they need – hardly surprising if so many haven’t done the work themselves.
If the link between degrees and high salaries were broken it may be that higher education would attract fewer opportunists and more students who want to learn.
Mary Brown is a freelance education consultant. She lives in Banchory, Aberdeenshire.(www.deesidewritingsupport.co.uk)