A recent government policy is looking to crack down on websites that sell academic essays or ‘essay mills’. With advances in plagiarism detecting software, these websites no longer sell pre-written essays. Now, an exploited graduate (often in a developing nations) will be paid a pittance by an agency to write the question for you. This is a big problem for staff: It’s easy to see where a student has directly copied someone else, but if you have someone create original content for you? Spotting this type of cheating can be virtually impossible.

What is interesting about the Guardian article that reported the policy is the reasons listed for why these websites are flourishing. If you go to the FAQs page of www.buyessays.com, there is a justification offered for why buying written essays isn’t cheating.

‘There are times when we all need a little extra support from our academic guides but are unable to get it. This is where BuyEssay.co.uk comes into play. Our team of researchers and expert writers temporarily takes on the role of your tutor or professor and guides you through the completion of your essay.

Having been students ourselves, we understand how strenuous student life can be. Increasingly difficult subjects, surmounting pressures, pressing deadlines, juggling part-time jobs, unreasonable demands from unrelenting tutors in expecting extensive research in a short time, can all lead to performance anxiety.’

I think that buying essays is a terrible waste of a student’s time, money and intellect. The quality of both the academic arguments and the English can vary widely. Some of these companies have blackmailed students who do complain about the quality by threatening to expose their duplicity to their institution.

But there is an interesting point in these passages relating to how busy student life is. This website skilfully homes in on something that academics don’t understand: student life can be tough and busy.

The website goes on to justify their services by suggesting:

‘What is essential when you are in college or university is to focus on scoring high grades and to get ready for your career ahead.’

This is true for many students, and academics who lament those halcyon days of studying for the sole and noble purpose of gaining knowledge must come to terms with it. I have no problem with students seeing a degree as a ticket to a livelihood, it’s the lecturer’s job to make them earn that ticket and come out with new ideas, skills and a wider appreciation of the world. The problem lies with the monetisation of the degree which blurs the boundary between the degree as something that is earned and something that is bought.

The student who pays for an essay ghostwriter is likely to be an overworked student who feels they have nowhere else to turn. Professors are too busy, and the library is too full and time is too short. The student has also paid a lot of money for their tuition fees, or the ticket to a shot at a graduate job. Is it really a surprise that they wouldn’t look to secure their investment with some sort of queue jumping or insurance, regardless of how dodgy the seller is?

We must remember that many other experiences that make up a well-rounded student and graduate employee can be purchased. Internships are auctioned off, gap years are often serviced by middlemen and the company Projects Abroad estimates that six weeks of dissertation fieldwork can be smoothed out with a one-off payment of just under £3000. It’s perhaps no surprise that students feel other parts of the academic experience can be bought and sold.

There is also a tingle of hypocrisy from academics who berate this practice while sneaking their name onto a paper as a contributing author. This is another type of intellectual dishonesty. While we don’t officially pay junior staff or PhD students to write grant applications, they may do much of the legwork and get little of the credit. Both staff and student work in environments that can encourage them to forsake intellectual rigour for numbers, be it grades, jobs, impact factors or REF scores.

Tackling this problem will require more than shutting down professional websites where feckless agencies hire desperate staff in foreign countries and charge exorbitant fees to desperate students. We should also think about the academic environment we, as researchers operate in, and what sort of example that sets for our students. A sister company called www.buypublications.co.uk doesn’t currently exist, but in the current neo-liberal academy, the idea isn’t unthinkable.