When students pay companies to write essays for them, the work they receive in return is often of poor quality. That’s the main finding of new research released by schools exam regulator Ofqual into companies that write essays for students.
The research, conducted on behalf of Ofqual by London Economics, saw the company purchase bespoke original essays that they expected to obtain A grades at A Level. They paid between £70 and £220 each for these essays. The essays were independently assessed and largely received C and D grades, much lower than the students expected – and paid for.
The Ofqual results are not surprising. My colleague Robert Clarke and I have conducted extensive research into the essay writing and contract cheating industries, and have looked at the range and extent of work that students pay for. We have focused primarily on higher education, but have also looked at examples from further education.
Other research I’ve done with media partners has also identified the poor quality of the work students are getting for their money. For instance, BBC South East today recently asked me to review essays on law and nursing that they had commissioned and paid for. My impression of the finished essays was that they were of an acceptable standard for undergraduate work, but would only receive average marks.
Beat the cheaters
My research suggests that schools and universities should be moving away from the use of essays to assessment types that are more difficult for students to cheat on. One possible solution is the more widespread use of exams.
I favour individual spoken exams to written exams, since these allow academics to explore the content and understanding of work on an individual level. Becoming competent in speaking out loud will also assist students who may have to go through tough interview processes in later life. Alternatively, students can be asked to produce work that is more personal and focused on their future career goals, rather than a dry academic essay.
Our research has currently identified more than 25,000 cheating attempts by students requesting to have original work written for them since 2004. These are people who have posted on online auctions sites with a request for an essay to be written. That number continues to rise.
The custom essay writing market is a huge one. Times Higher Education estimated that one UK-based essay writing service alone was “worth £200m a year”. The same company estimated that they wrote more than 8,000 custom essays for UK-based students in 2012.
A customer services representative for one firm, UKEssays, is quoted in the Ofqual report stating: “We have over 4,000 researchers working for us”. The marketing teams behind these services seem equally solid. I have personally observed essay-writing business cards being handed out to students on university campuses, seen posters advertising writing services appear on university noticeboards and seen targeted adverts on social media sites such as Facebook.
If students pay for their work rather than doing it themselves, they will end up leaving their school, college or university without having picked up the skills needed for their future career. From an employer’s perspective, students are entering the workplace who are not as well-skilled as they appear on paper. While this may seem like a trivial matter for some, it may have financially damaging consequences for many firms.
My own biggest concern about contract cheating is always that we are disadvantaging the honest students. Most students work very hard for their qualifications, put in a lot of effort and really want to succeed to the best of their ability. When a small number of students are paying to have their essays and other academic work written for them, this is disadvantaging the students who are putting the effort in.
Bad grammar not sure sign of cheating
The Ofqual report suggests that teachers and lecturers need to look closely at the work that students are handing in to see if it looks like they have written it themselves. This is not always as easy as it seems.
Grammatical mistakes are one indicator staff pick up on in purchased essays. Personally, I do not feel that this is much of a giveaway. Work submitted by students often contains grammatical mistakes and so would not raise particular alarm bells. This is not surprising from a generation of school pupils and university students used to writing text messages, posting on blogs and communicating through social media sites.
But it is essential that staff, students and parents are vigilant when signs suggest students are not engaging with their studies. We need to make sure that those companies writing essays for our students are not continuing to prosper.