Somewhere in Kenya there are bright and motivated university graduates making a living writing essays for students at universities in the English-speaking West. We know this thanks to a report last month in the Chronicle of High Education, and we know more about the mucky business of essay mills thanks to a report
Such investigations are uncovering the globalized nature of ‘essay mills’. Like other Western universities, the UK is producing graduates – not many, but some – whose grades have been achieved with the unacknowledged support of others – including, we now know, some of the best and brightest of the developing world.
Consider for a moment the geo-politics of this situation. The great – or once, as the case may be, kind of great – Western countries are lurching towards insular, anti-immigration policies. Trump wants to build a wall around the US; Brexit may achieve the same thing rather more effectively for the UK. And yet, as governments try harder than ever to keep immigrants out, there are ‘home’ students breezing through university on the back of their own capital and the intellectual labour of the youth of the developing world. Let’s imagine some of those who graduate on the back of such arrangements slide into politics – another field, it’s fair to say, where mendacity is rewarded – and as a result have the opportunity to argue afresh against immigration. Why would they do otherwise? The current prejudices work quite well for them.
Yep, something about this scenario screams ‘colonialism in the twenty-first century’. Think for a minute about how those essay-writers might more effectively be using their time, doing the much more important work of developing their own countries. But it’s more lucrative to be helping the rich Western kids cheat than to be transforming lives and nations at home.
What’s the QAA going to do about it?
The neo-colonial model is obviously just one of many; in truth essay-writers for hire can be found anywhere in the world. So what’s to be done? For those of us teaching in the great Western universities, how do we confront the reality that some – and it’s absolutely critical to remember that it’s just some, not many – of our students are buying their essays. What’s to be done about the essay mills?
The QAA pushes some predictable solutions from side to side. Given their longstanding commitment to the panacea that Turnitin pretends offer, the rise of the custom-written essay has perhaps taken them by surprise. Part of the purpose of their report is simply profile-raising; too many academics, arguably, are naive in the face of a growing problem. But they also offer some useful actions, including:
- preventing essay-mills from advertising;
- promoting changes in assessment models and curriculum design, to make life harder for the cheats;
- working with UK universities and the NUS, and also with international agencies, to identify best-practice in deterring this particular form of plagiarism.
Which is as much as to say: we can see this is a problem, and our solution is to try our best to fix it. Fair enough: the QAA is by nature cautious, and this report is, for all its limitations, a step in the right direction
What’s trust got to do with it?
But I think there’s another approach. I call it ‘trust’.
If we take a step back and look at higher education in rational economic terms, it becomes quite reasonable for a student to say: ‘I’m spending many thousands of pounds/dollars/etc. to acquire a certificate than will have a material impact on my career prospects and earning potential. In this context, why not spend some more to ensure the best possible result?’ Is this not simply a rational response to a marketised and utilitarian model of higher education?
And now consider how most UK students are already subjected routinely to trial-by-Turnitin, to detect the forms of plagiarism that remain detectable. This practice positions every student as a potential plagiarist, and the student-teacher dynamic as a game. One rational response is to find ever more clever ways of cheating. Hence the essay mills.
But what if we work against such structures of reason? What about if we assert a different model of higher education, founded on honest and respectful exchange between the teachers and the taught? This is not especially radical; it’s a model of higher education that has been around for centuries, and continues to this day. It’s just that now we need to think about it a bit more explicitly, and maybe fight for it a bit more rigorously.
In my department we don’t routinely use Turnitin. We trust the students. We have a version of an honour code, which boils down to a commitment to values of integrity, civility and trust. And these values were selected very much because they do not focus purely on a utilitarian gain (i.e. reducing plagiarism), but set out rather to define a community. It seems to me that people who feel part of a community are less likely to break its codes.
I’m sure, as a marker of essays, that I’ve been duped over the years. That pisses me off as much as anyone. But I’m equally sure that the building of academic communities of staff and students, based on mutual trust and respect – not to mention the personal integrity that underpins most students’ drive to succeed – is just about the most effective means through which we can combat cheating.
That will sound like utopian thinking to many people. I can handle that. In the meantime their answers of ‘us and them’, and their new technologies of plagiarism policing are not exactly fixing the problem. They may even be making it worse.