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We contacted an online ‘essay mill’ with a real assignment from Bristol University.

Illustration: Marissa Malik

Imagine you’re an undergraduate in your final university term. You’ve had three weeks to write an essay worth 40% of your unit but you’ve squandered your time downing Jägerbombs at Mbargos and spending Saturdays at Motion and, subsequently, the following Sunday bundled under your duvet. Suddenly, the one-week-mark arrives and you’ve not even made a crack in the spine of your reading. Would you pay an anonymous screen name in southwest Asia to do your assignment for you?

This scenario is not as far fetched as you think: the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) – an independent body surveying standards of higher education – estimated there are more than 100 websites in operation where students can pay freelancers to do essays, coursework and dissertations for them.

Some sites have already garnered a bit of notoriety, lampooned in national outlets like The Tab and VICE for being… extremely bad. Evaluating the site Essay Writing Lab for myself, I gave them a real assignment from my final year at university. (Note, of course, that is was purely for journalistic purposes.)

The anonymous ‘Sales Representative’ didn’t  really answer my questions, managing to skate around them by providing copy-and-paste responses. Not very assuring for someone who is willing to spend £192.74 of hard-earned cash (OK, government-granted student loan) in exchange for a ready-made assignment. Troublingly, they claim to have UK-based offices, yet their ‘London’ postcode – EC2P 1ZD – doesn’t even exist. This is not a company I’d trust with my academic fate, much less my debit card details.

There are, however, essay mills that appear, well, slightly more legit. Oxbridge Essays, for example, have a London office you can drop into and discuss your requirements. They claim to have a plethora of leading academics on-hand who write your essay for you but their products come with a much heftier price tag. Maybe people would be more inclined to use services provided by field experts, rather than those who have access to a search engine and Microsoft Office –  but, still, how could you really know?

I couldn’t find anyone within my immediate circles of recent graduates who had used these services (or would admit to it), but people must if there are so many available. A recent study by Dr Thomas Lancaster, associate head of the School of Computing, Electronics and Mathematics at Coventry University, identified at least 30,000 examples of online essay purchases.

Yet, these services are obviously not accessible to the average student: buyers must be sitting on gold mines if they’re willing to share small fortunes in exchange for a top-grade paper. This risks creating a culture within higher education which completely erases the notion that working hard equates to academic success. In a society where those who are privileged by birth and financial circumstances already have a ready-set advantage, the supposedly level fields of academia become favoured towards those who can buy top marks without ever having to pick up a pen.

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Nevertheless, this industry is potentially lucrative if you’re going to the right places: there must be something pushing students towards them. Laziness and hedonism, or a lack of confidence in English as a second language, could well be reasons why students seek these websites. However, in a more serious vein, it’s no secret that the University of Bristol has been intensely scrutinised for high suicide rates by students under their pastoral care. Academic pressure is a very real cause of depression, anxiety and other mental health-related illnesses.

When contacted for comment, a university spokesperson said “We value academic integrity very highly. Any students found to have cheated by commissioning essays and passing them as their own would be treated through our standard procedures… and could be excluded from the award for which they are registered.

“To avoid any disciplinary procedures, we urge students to seek support from lecturers, personal tutors and wellbeing services if they begin to feel overwhelmed.”

This is well-and-good in theory, but how can universities prevent the use of these services? Although the university have ‘online detection tools are used to help in identifying plagiarism’, a lot of these sites promise original essays: the truth is that no one can prevent this fraudulent exchange – nor assist with compensation if it goes tits up.

Professor Phillip Newton from Swansea University has urged the government to make the operation of these sites illegal, as has happened in New Zealand. The threat of legal action to close down these websites has been floated by government ministers for years. Some education commentators have said that a recent Irish law clamping down on essay mills could be a model for UK. If rolled out, such a law would act as a deterrent to cheating, but it could never completely prevent these transactions from happening, with essay mills perhaps even migrating to the dark web. After all, cheating and intellectual theft have occurred since the beginning of academia; isn’t this just a thoroughly modern way of doing so? Next, we’ll have personal androids doing the dirty work for us.

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