Q: How do you make £1.6m a year and drive a Ferrari? A: Sell essays for £400
· Universities call summit to combat plagiarism
· Industry estimated to be worth £200m a year
Matthew Taylor and Riazat Butt
Saturday July 29, 2006
The multimillion-pound trade in internet cheating which sees thousands of students hand over money in return for bespoke essays is to be investigated by a committee of MPs, it has emerged.
The move comes as the Guardian unveils the scale of the market in online plagiarism, estimated to be worth £200m, which has seen a boom in the number of companies offering tailored essays in the last 12 months.
The owner of one online organisation says he employs 3,500 specialist writers who have written more than 15,000 essays for students wanting a leg-up in university courses. The company made £90,000 in one week in May and the owner has a Ferrari and a Lamborghini in his garage.
The scale of the problem, which affects schools and universities, was underlined last night when vice-chancellors announced they will hold a plagiarism summit in October to devise ways of stemming the online trade.
In a separate move, the exams watchdog, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, has confirmed it is reviewing the reliance on coursework in GCSE and A-level subjects thought to be most susceptible to plagiarism.
Barry Sheerman, chair of the Commons education select committee, said it would be holding a special session in the autumn to investigate the problem. "I think there will be a move back to exam-only courses, especially in subjects like history and English, because of the increasing concern about plagiarism."
A recent study found that one in six university students admits to cheating in some way. This year Alan Grafen, senior proctor at Oxford University, warned that widespread plagiarism threatened the value of an Oxford degree.
But Barclay Littlewood, owner of online company ukessays.com, disagrees. With a stable of sports cars in his garage, he has done well out his business and says he provides a guide for students rather than helping them cheat.
"Our turnover for 2005 was £1.6m. In one week in early May we took £90,000. One of our customers has spent £17,000 with us. My overheads are pretty low because we work from home and our writers work on commission. So I take about a third of £1.6m."
His company is one of thousands that have sprung up in recent years and he and his team have supplied more than 15,000 people with tailor-made essays since the business began in 2003.
Universities and exam watchdogs say the companies are encouraging people to cheat and undermining the UK's academic record. But Mr Littlewood said: "We always tell students to check their university guidelines. We say take a common-sense approach. You have to use it like you would any other source. The essay is a starting point. You use it to build a new argument you haven't thought of before. We do the sifting out for you. We're also showing how to write a great essay."
Mary (not her real name), who graduated with a first class law degree from the Open University, is a legal executive and writes essays for ukessays.com. In a quiet period she can earn £400 a week; during busier times, something closer to £1,000.
"It took me a while to get my head round what Barclay was doing, I wanted to make sure it was all above board. I'm proud of what I do. If I've helped someone who's been sweating it out and point them in the right direction, that gives me a sense of satisfaction."
Mr Littlewood estimates that the essay-writing business is worth £200m in the UK, with a new sites appearing every month.
Last night university bosses said almost every institution regards plagiarism - and online essay providers - as a threat to higher education. A spokesman for Universities UK said several institutions had expressed concern about the websites, including that vulnerable students might be lured into buying substandard essays.
Vice-chancellors, university managers and senior academics were expected to attend the conference in the autumn, which would look at all aspects of online essays. "The suggestion that these are to be used by students as 'guides' is both absurd and dishonest. Universities say it is irresponsible, risks undermining the quality of a UK higher education degree and should be tackled more forcefully."
Philip Pothen, from the Joint Information Systems Committee, which funds the UK's Plagiarism Advisory Service, said more than 200 further education colleges and universities have software which enables lecturers to check suspect work against five billion web pages.
"Obviously this is a big issue, I don't think there are any places were institutions don't think this is a serious problem."
He said many universities have a full-time member of staff dedicated to tackling plagiarism.
"It's not just about catching people cheating and punishing them, it's about a whole education process. We are trying to help pupils understand about sourcing and referencing properly, about how to create a proper bibliography ... In the end, the students who are using these services are not gaining the skills they need for their course or for later life."
But those at the sharp end of the online essay market insist they are doing nothing wrong.
Mr Littlewood says his target market is the honest student, although he concedes that it's "exceptionally difficult" to know what students are doing with the paid-for essay.
"I don't see what students are getting from wading through lots of research; they know what's relevant and what's not. Our answers are fully referenced but they're our opinion. Students need to analyse our answer and work from there."
Buying an essay
For the struggling or idle student, there are tens of thousands of websites to choose from when looking for essays. Some sites offer a bespoke service, tailoring the work to your exact requirements and charging accordingly - so expect to pay a premium for a longer length or a faster turnaround.
From one online company, a first-class degree essay of 1,000 words, delivered the next day, would cost £320. Some sites charge extra if the essay is for a PhD or masters degree.
Most bespoke essay-writing companies charge by the word, although some charge by the page. There is one company that bills students £30 per 250 words and another that charges at least £60 per essay.
For the cash rich and time poor there are sites offering additional services including title page, references, bibliography, formatting, shipment and an order status tracking facility.
Many sites insist their essays are unique - they will not appear in another student's coursework or an online essay database - and that there is no plagiarism involved. Some are so confident they claim their essays can be run through plagiarism software without fear of detection, offering a money back guarantee.
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