When Dan Burns was in his final year at university, he began to notice something strange. Whenever Burns, an English Literature student at Sheffield Hallam University, wrote a tweet or Facebook status mentioning a university assignment, he would be bombarded with adverts promoting paid-for essay websites, commonly known as ‘essay mill’ services.
They offered to write a realistic-looking academic essay on any topic within just a few days, promising everything from school homework right up to PhD assignments. A budding journalist, Burns, 21, decided to launch an experiment, paying nearly £65 for an English Literature essay from a popular essay mill site.
Essay mill services have long been condemned by Britain’s universities, and today 46 university heads wrote to the education secretary calling for the practice to be outlawed. The services, they say, are an affront to honest, diligent students, and undermine the integrity of the university system. Universities minister Sam Gyimah said the government was looking to “bear down” on the problem, promising that “legislative options are not off the table”.
University cheating has risen in recent years, with a survey by Swansea University finding that 15 per cent of students had cheated in the past four years, up from an average of 3.5 percent over the past 40 years.
It’s hard to know exactly why students turn to these sites, because few ever discuss it publicly – understandable, given that using the service in most universities would result in instant expulsion.
But discussions on online student forums suggest that much of the demand comes from students who are worried about failing their courses after falling behind with deadlines.
Burns – who first wrote about his experiment in his student newspaper, and now edits student website The Tab Sheffield – insists he would never try to pass off a paid-for essay as his own work, but can understand why some might feel pressured to seek external help.
“I can imagine why, if someone was falling behind or had a lot of deadlines, that might be appealing,” he says. “If you really were struggling and you saw this advert come up on your Facebook, and you felt like that was the only way out, then maybe that would be appealing to you.”
Burns invented a fictional essay question (“To what extent are women restricted by society in Victorian literature?”) and paid £64.63 to the Essay Writing Lab website, asking for a 1,000-word essay within 12 days.
He says the website’s sales team promised him a “precise writer matching system” to match the “best possible writer to your order”, and “guaranteed” he wouldn’t get caught if he decided to submit the work to his tutors.
“There was even a service where you could specifically request a certain writer if you’ve used the site before and … pay extra to have [them] write your essay,” he says.
“I would have been impressed, were it not for the fact that it’s bad … so, so bad,” he said at the time.
At one point, the essay referred to Mr Brocklehurst, the sadistic boarding school teacher in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, as ‘Mr Blocklehurst’, and labelled Oliver Twist as ‘Oliver Twists’. He says the grammar was “all over the place”, and some sentences just didn’t make sense. The essay’s opening line, for example, declared: “The Victorian era refers to the period when Queen Victoria ruled the British monarchy a time when women’s rights were socially constrained.”
“What does that even mean?” he asked after reading the essay through. Seeking a professional opinion, he says he sent the essay to his tutor, who gave it woeful 49 percent – equivalent to a Third Class degree.
Burns now thinks the Government should ban essay mill services, which he thinks “take advantage of vulnerable students” who are struggling with their workload.
“You’re at university to learn and write about what you’ve learnt. If you’re doing that by cheating, that does kind of undermine everyone else,” he says.
“If university is driving people to be so stressed, to feel like they can’t physically do it themselves, then maybe that’s a problem with the university system. I personally wouldn’t do it, but maybe … [universities] aren’t really helping students when they are in need.”