Of all the independent services circling higher education, essay mills must be the least welcome.
Yet these businesses are booming. Closed examination halls have meant tutors have set more coursework assessment tasks – assignments of a kind that students can potentially outsource.
Meanwhile, research has revealed the readiness and versatility of essay mills in offering services that meet their customers’ diverse “needs”. Given that assignment outsourcing is so obviously wrong, how do these services attract their customers?
We analysed the promotional rhetoric on 95 essay mill websites. Unsurprisingly, they all stressed the quality, price, and fast turnaround of their service. Beyond that, most of them reinforced the importance of students succeeding on their course.
But around half of them went further – promoting a distinctly hostile view of higher education. It was characterised as letting students down. Critical commentary mainly focussed on assessment processes, including assignment design. Five distinct propositions recurred in the text and images projected on these sites. These are summarised below – with representative quotes from our dataset.
One common framing is that assignment tasks are typically irrelevant to personal ambitions. Tasks were described as not simply “boring”: they were unrelated to the interests and passions that had originally made higher education attractive:
You have the knowledge to do the job, right? But you can’t simply let the rest of your life slip into oblivion, all because of academic papers, most of which are absolutely useless for your future career.”
Assignment tasks are also framed as a distraction from authentic learning. These tasks “take up invaluable study time and are often responsible for students getting behind”. Moreover, they undermine student agency:
We help students evade the assignments they would otherwise simply decline…we empower you to choose your assignments.”
The mills also frame the demands of academic communication as unreasonable. A common predicament of students was, apparently, one of being comfortable in what you know but simply obstructed by the arcane demands of academic presentation:
Are you one of the millions of students who feel that it isn’t fair that being an expert writer is a condition of your graduation?”
They also like to suggest that tutors fail to support students’ assignment work. Assignment-setting tutors were characterised as disconnected from student experience, indifferent to their needs, imprecise in task specification, and often preoccupied with other matters:
They tend to be very busy, too caught up in their own research and their own writing to give very much attention to students needing help with dissertation writing…You no longer need to wait until your advisor has time to help you.”
Finally, they frequently suggest that the delegation (of assignments) is a rational and an adaptive practice. In the outside world it is noted that:
The majority of successful people practice the delegating of huge and ineffective workloads to well-trained professionals”.
Such points were set alongside visual images of students that projected effort, agency, and social confidence. If membership of a scholarly community was acknowledged, it was only implied through portraying an upbeat peer group.
The relative absence of otherwise thematically relevant material – such as teachers, classrooms and groupwork – could imply that student success can be independent of pedagogy.
Copy and pasting
It is plagiarised coursework that has made essay mills most troublesome for the HE sector. However, if the forms of promotional rhetoric outlined above are actually appropriated by students, then these sites become troublesome in an additional way.
We cannot be certain how corrosive such negative messages are. The scale and economic success of essay mills at least implies their rhetoric will be widely read. Moreover, it is a rhetoric that may be echoing certain attitudes that students already hold.
These websites have access to a corpus of service correspondence wherein students indicate the motives behind their requests. Essay mills may recruit critiques of educational practice from within this correspondence – perhaps amplifying them.
So it would certainly be wise for the sector to pause and reflect on their critiques: considering possible implications for current assessment practices. Review could focus on (a) how to best clarify the motives and practices of assessment and (b) how to provide assessment with richer forms of tutorial support.
The former might include stressing how even summative assessment is a resource that supports instruction – i.e. not simply a grading ritual. An assignment should be viewed as an opportunity for creative challenge, a reference point for tutorial conversations, a necessary encounter with “desirable difficulty”.
In short, assessment tasks should not seem decoupled from learning. In explaining assessment practice, more might be done to give meaning and authority to the academic genre of communication. Finally, essay mills sometimes claim legitimacy by declaring they “merely” furnish “example answers”. Tutors could clarify the place (or inappropriateness) of such illustrative material within each context of assessment.
However, such urging will achieve credibility if it is matched by good tutorial support during assignment periods. Office hours are often invoked as the response to this, but they are notoriously neglected by students. Something less like a GP appointment and more like an A&E visit might be more attractive. Some engineering departments have set up surgery style drop-in sites for just-in-time support. In addition, the recent uptake of digital tools for synchronous communication could be more seriously explored.
Moving away from regulation-induction-punishment
A reflective review of assessment practices is one strategy for confronting essay mills. The sector’s current approach to the problem is typically more negative: it dwells narrowly on regulation-induction-punishment.
Yet no part of that trio seems to work well. Neither will invoking new laws have much impact – an approach suggesting a rather poor understanding of the internet.
Most of the websites we explored resided in very shadowy parts of the globe, with uncertain ownership. And many contract authors now freelance, with even more anonymity. Institutions are already hesitant in teasing apart straightforward collusion/plagiarism from bona fide tuition/collaborative planning. Legislators may have similar difficulties.
One way forward is surely to make teaching staff more aware of the scale and methods of assignment outsourcing. An outcome of our own research has been an overview of the industry. Hopefully, it might attract greater awareness of these practices – and the rather poisonous messages in which they are wrapped.