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Postgraduate Study

Cheating is a growing problem facing academia

Essay-writing for cash is serious business for unscrupulous Masters students and undergraduates.

It's not even lunchtime and Ziggy Garrett has already earned £100 for a couple of hours' work. Without leaving the comfort of the British Library café, the postgraduate student has typed up a 2,000-word essay for which he will be paid - handsomely.

The risk for Ziggy – not his real name – is that he could get caught. And if he does get caught he can wave goodbye to any hopes of an academic career because he is one of a growing band of research students alleged to be funding their studies by helping undergraduates to cheat.

Essay-writing companies that sell custom-made essays to lazy or incompetent students have long claimed to have university academics on their books willing to complete assignments. Ziggy, writing under an alias, is the first to admit that he is one of them.

In an article for GRADBritain, the online magazine written by and for postgraduate students, he explains how in order to write the essay he was sent the question, the student's notes, the grade to which he aspired and his reading list. "No plagiarism software in the world is going to be able to detect that this isn't the student's own work," he says.

The companies that employ graduates to write essays and complete assignments for undergraduates claim they are not undermining academic standards because cheating occurs only if the students pass off the work as their own, something they "discourage". "Bless those naive entrepreneurs," says the Masters student. "Indeed, these organisations discourage it so much that I have had essays sent back to me for amendments along with the supervisor's comments,"

"Whether we like it or not, these services are growing. Fast. And they are becoming increasingly sophisticated."

So keen is Ziggy to defend the companies that he likens them to Robin Hood, stealing from the privileged and lazy to give to the intelligent, hardworking and under-subsidised – people like himself, in fact.

Essay-writing sites are thriving, despite Google's ban on paid adverts last year. Some have even attempted to occupy the moral high ground, claiming to be filling in the gaps for students who are getting insufficient support from their tutors.

Plagiarism is flourishing without enough serious effort to tackle it, says Robert Clarke, an anti-plagiarism expert at Birmingham City University. Now universities are facing a new threat called contract cheating – students posting their assignments on auction sites and waiting for bidders to complete them at the right price.

"There are probably quite a few students who supplement their income by contract work, but even if you can prove they did the work, it's difficult to get them 'bang to rights' if the students who purchase the material say they didn't actually use it or redid it themselves," says Clarke, a lecturer in computer science.

Unfortunately, reduced contact hours between undergraduates and lecturers make it harder for staff to detect work that is out of line with the student's abilities or writing style, he says. "Some universities don't even use anti-plagiarism software. In many cases it's a 'don't ask, don't tell' scenario because they don't want to open a can of worms."

Liza Filby, the PhD student in the history department of the University of Warwick who edits GRADBritain, says she came across the student while looking into the efforts universities made to tackle plagiarism. "I was told about him by a friend and he agreed to write a piece for the magazine, as long as he wasn't identified." Worried that it might look as if the magazine was glorifying the cheating, she also commissioned an article from Dr Kate Bradley, a historian at the University of Kent, who condemned Ziggy's attempts to defend himself as misguided and naive.

"If it is true that postgraduates are signing up to ghost-write essays for lazy undergraduates, then this is an extremely worrying development," she writes in the magazine, which is funded by Vitae, the organisation that supports researchers in higher education.

"Ziggy and his customers fail to understand the value of a degree. You don't pick up a degree when you get 3,000 Clubcard points. You have to put effort in to get something out," she says. Coursework and research for essays are not meaningless exercises to reduce the amount of time spent in the union bar. They are integral to the development of the student, she says. If caught, he would be blacklisted and it would be the end of his career in academia, she warns.

So how does Ziggy defend the indefensible? The success of the companies reveal two major flaws in the higher education system, he says. "First, undergraduate intake has increased to a point where supervisors don't know the students well enough to detect whether the work is theirs or not," he says. "Second, graduate funding is in such an inadequate state that graduates are signing up in large numbers to sell their intellectual capital."

Moral condemnation will not work. "Instead of harping on about the immorality of plagiarism, let's just review why these essay-writing companies are thriving," he says. "For the people who use them it's obvious enough they buy themselves a customised degree."

And the writers? Ziggy explains that he failed to secure research council funding this year, having already taken a year out to save up the fees and found himself in the unfortunate position of not being able to cover his living costs. Dropping out of his Masters was not an option. Writing essays fitted better round his schedule than other part-time work. It also paid more and forced him to produce intellectual academic arguments at speed and with an economy of knowledge.

"It's a great training for the sort of journal and article writing which will be the daily bread of an academic career," he says.

It's easy to unravel the argument that students need help because they can't get it from their tutors, says Clarke. The famous Tennessee defence collapsed in a celebrated case in the United States when the student who claimed inadequate support was shown not to have asked for it. "If the student posts up an assignment shortly after receiving it or looks for someone to write it for them just before the deadline, then clearly they had no intention of seeking help from their tutors."

Such considerations don't bother Ziggy: "Graduate funding is in crisis, particularly at Masters level, with even the most capable students falling through the research council lottery," he says. "And these essay companies represent the savoury end of the wedge."