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Photography Victoria Heath

The rise of cheating in UK universities

As universities continue to commodify education, increasing numbers of students are buying and selling essays

This time two years ago, Vicky* was curled up at her desk in her student house in Leeds, her face lit up by the blue light of her laptop, with a freshly-brewed coffee warming her hands. She had to write a 2,500-word university essay on social work, and wasted no time in putting her nose to the grindstone. Over the next few weeks, she spent hours researching, planning, writing, and proofreading. Eventually, after deleting all the comma splices and shifting the paragraphs around, she created a piece of work she was proud of.

But she never handed it in. Her tutors never saw it. She didn’t even study social work. Instead, Vicky sent it off to another student who had posted on social media looking for someone to help them with academic writing in exchange for money. “I made £250,” she tells me.

Cheating has become a growing concern for British universities in recent years, with 2018 research finding that one in seven students have paid someone to write an essay for them (a practice called ‘contract cheating’). It’s an issue that’s been compounded by the sudden shift to online learning during the pandemic – The Guardian reported in 2021 that the number of requests for help sent in to a leading ‘homework help’ website rose by 196 per cent between 2019 and 2020. The Tab reported in 2021 that one private tutor was offered hundreds to sit students’ online exams for them. Another agreed to write a dissertation for £3,000.

This was the first time Vicky ever wrote an essay for money, but not the last. “I ended up charging [£10] for every 100 words and would add an extra charge if it was less than 15 days' notice to write it, or if the topic required a lot of research,” she says. On one occasion, a student ‘paid’ Vicky by cleaning her house. On another, Vicky wrote Masters’ coursework for her friend’s boyfriend in exchange for Starbucks and even her rent.

Like Vicky, Tim*, 20, is a student at Newcastle University who has done other people’s uni work for cash. He tells Dazed that he began helping his friends with coding as a “favour”, but this eventually led to him doing their coursework for money. “A friend of mine from Edinburgh was struggling with his Python coursework,” he says. Tim offered to help, but his friend had another idea. “He said it would be better if I could just do it for him, because it would take me an hour and a half but it would have taken him six hours,” he recalls. “He didn’t really care about whether it was going to affect him or not.” Tim tells me his friend paid him £5 for his work.

In a bid to crack down on cheating, the government recently announced that they would be introducing legislation to ban essay mills, but it’s unclear how effective this will be as most essay mills are based overseas and operate outside the UK’s jurisdiction. Plus – this goes without saying – it’s fair to say that a cheat is probably not that concerned with the rules anyway. After all, cheating is already banned within universities and offenders who are caught are usually punished, but that (obviously) doesn’t stop anyone who sets out to do it.

“I ended up charging [£10] for every 100 words and would add an extra charge if it was less than 15 days' notice to write it, or if the topic required a lot of research” – Vicky*

This recent decision tracks with the government’s tendency to tackle problems with punitive measures rather than address the root causes of the issue. Cheating is bad and shouldn’t happen, yes, but the reality is that it does happen and it would be far more productive to look at why students feel the need to cheat.

While it’s easy to assume that the switch to online learning alone has facilitated the rise in cheating in recent years, it’s possible that students feel increasingly compelled to cheat because of the immense toll COVID-19 has taken on both their wellbeing and quality of teaching. Half of 18 to 24-year-olds in the UK said that the pandemic had a negative impact on their mental health, and notably university students’ complaints about the pandemic disrupting their studies led to more than 1,000 appeals to the higher education watchdog in England and Wales last year. With this in mind, it’s likely many students are experiencing heightened anxiety to succeed and going to unusually extreme lengths to secure good grades.

Disabled students were particularly unsupported during lockdown. Vicky explains that as the student she helped had dyslexia and was studying to become a social worker, she didn’t feel guilty about writing the essay for them. “I felt OK doing it because it was for a practical course. It’s unfair to expect a certain type of intelligence for a job role that requires a completely different type of intelligence,” she says. “I don’t think social workers need to know how to write a good essay – it’s more important that they know the law, how to spot abuse, and the relevant information.”

Ahmed*, 20, is a student based in Manchester. He tells me that he recently paid £100 for two essays after finding writers on Fiverr, an online marketplace for freelance services. “My course is mostly essays and I suffer from ADHD so it’s hard for me to concentrate,” he says, adding that he’s found it difficult to access his university’s disability support services.

It’s also unlikely that contract cheating will be eradicated until universities stop treating their students like customers. It’s no wonder that students are increasingly unconcerned with the value of ‘academic integrity’ when their education is increasingly commodified. As Poppy Noor put it in The Guardian, increasing fees send “a very clear message to students: your money is just as important as your mind [...] Buying essays – any form of plagiarism – is clearly wrong, but it feels like the logical extension of an education that comes with a high and rising price tag.” This chimes with Ahmed’s experience: “If I got a 2:2, I wouldn’t be happy as I don’t see the point in coming out with that.”

Plus, given that young people are disproportionately concentrated in low-paid, unstable work and generally have a natural predisposition to be self-reliant, it’s unsurprising that the essay ghostwriters themselves are turning their academic talent into a lucrative side hustle. Vicky explains that prior to doing others’ coursework, she used to work as a carer but hated it. “Waking up at 5am to wipe someone’s arse and having your boss treat you like shit is not how I want to live,” she says. “Writing essays gave me the opportunity to work for myself which I really liked, and it also meant that I could do something that I enjoyed.”

“It ended up taking a lot of financial stress off of me and provided accommodation for me at a time when I really needed it,” she continues, referring to the student who paid her rent for her. “I’m not someone that can just go home for the holidays – I don’t have a safe environment to go back to and the student loan just doesn’t stretch that far. [Writing coursework for money] ultimately provided me with financial security.” 

None of this is to say cheating (or, arguably, facilitating cheating) is OK or excusable – there are plenty of students who struggle and don’t resort to plagiarism, after all. But acknowledging this constellation of factors can make it a little easier to understand why students cheat and, by extension, help the government and universities to eliminate the need to cheat in the first place.

*Names have been changed