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News analysis: For cheats or not for cheats

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By far the biggest academic issue at the moment is the purchase of custom essays by students. Many of these students are looking for an easy ride to scholastic excellence. Companies providing bespoke essays to students have been universally condemned by lecturers, student groups and the majority of students for profiting from aiding lazy or below-par students to cheat.

Yet many students, in particular foreign students, are parting with their cash regularly on such essays turning this market into a multi-million pound industry.

On being contacted by popular custom-essay site UKEssays.com about a story regarding disparities in university marking systems, The National Student took the opportunity to pose some difficult questions regarding their services and the morals involved.

Since the beginning of 2008 the company have seen a 300% rise in business and UKEssays founder Barclay Littlewood claims the market is now worth an estimated £320 million. UKEssays refute the allegation that they are profiting from helping students cheat on assignments.

Company spokesman Jed Hallam said, “The allegation that we profit from dishonest students is something that we firmly stand in opposition to, and such an accusation is purely based on speculation.”

Regardless, vast profits are being made by UKEssays, Littlewood was a new entry in the recent The Sunday Times Rich List; being placed at 71 on the Young Persons Rich List with a wealth of £7million.

The company, and those providing similar services, claim that they offer a legitimate ‘research tool’ to students with Littlewood recently stating to University of Nottingham magazine Impact that they are no different to ‘journals or Google’. Hallam said, “UKEssays.com is simply a search engine for academia, we find and explain all of the appropriate sources, and put them into a model answer format. This serves two purposes; firstly, the student can see how they should respond to the question, and secondly they can then take the references that have been used and explore them themselves.”

They deny that even with their services being used in this ‘legitimate’ manner they are still allowing students to skip the majority of the process on which their final grade will be based, basically doing the research stage for them.

“Not at all, because a student must still perform their own research. Our essays act as a starting point for students to begin their own research, by giving them a list of sources and references we are probably increasing the amount of research they have to do! But because we give them sources they might not have otherwise seen, they are able to produce a much more specific and balanced piece of work,” stated Hallam.

In complete contradiction to this claim on their website there is a quote from Barclay Littlewood boasting, “Want to get a better degree and do less work? We have helped thousands do it and we can help you do it too!”

This quote is a perfect example of the contradictory nature of the custom-essay industry. The justifications from UKEssays show that whilst they go to great lengths to deny that their essays are, whether intended to be or not, largely handed in by customers as their own work they fully understand that this is the case and operate a on-your-head-be-it policy that places the blame on everyone but themselves.

“While we must accept that a minority of our customers use our service dishonestly, these are the very few that slip through our vetting process. If at any point during the enquiry or sales process, we believe that the customer is planning to use the work dishonestly we inform them that the sale cannot continue and we ban them from all future transactions with the company. This is something that we enforce ourselves and we have no obligation to do so. We also have a ‘fair use’ policy on the website that highlights the proper use of our service, it also includes comprehensive examples of what constitutes plagiarism, something that universities seem to lack support with,” said Hallam.

On questioning their vetting processes UKEssays admitted it is ‘difficult’ to spot those wanting to cheat with their services and could offer little assurance that they can in any way prevent their essays from being used to cheat.

The question is why would hard-up students spend hundreds of pounds on obtaining a simple ‘research-tool’ when these are so readily available for free and why would anyone choose to pay extra for a guaranteed 2:1 or first class essay if they still had to produce the work themselves. The evidence suggests that money spent and the quality guarantees offered are only worthwhile if a student intends to hand the work in themselves.

But even this doesn’t guarantee success: universities are taking a strictly hard-line with this kind of ‘cheating’ and academics claim that essays from custom-essay sites are usually substandard (often using chunks of others work) and easily detectable with anti-plagiarism software. There is also evidence that many essays are written by unqualified undergraduates.

Despite the allegations and issues surrounding their services UKEssays are keen to become an accepted part of academic life, blaming the universities for being unreceptive and preventing their students from using a legitimate academic service.

“We’ve repeatedly called for talks with universities, but every time we have been ignored. We have never said that we are unwilling to work with universities, a fact that many people overlook. We believe that the core reason for this is that universities make huge profits from the current system and if it were to change, those profits would fall and students would begin to actually learn something important from their university education, not just how to write an essay,” explained Hallam.

The industry’s justifications aside, most students agree that the use of custom-essay sites to cheat is morally reprehensible and should not be encouraged at all. In the end the massive cost and huge risks of using a site like UKEssays is simply not worth it.

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