Shortly before the start of the last Academic Year a group of Chancellors and Vice-Chancellors from some of the UK’s leading universities were still trying to convince the Secretary of State for Education to ban essay writing organisations in the UK. Their aim was to stem the tide of what they saw as increasing cases of plagiarism within the ranks of their students. And what better way to do it than the imposition of total ban on the organisations at the heart of the rising tide of plagiarism. But In focusing exclusively on the so-called ‘essay mills’ the Chancellors and Vice-Chancellors, in their representations to the Government, did not address the issues underlying the reasons why some of their students have resorted to ‘essay mills’. Because before they began to make the arguments for or against the banning of essay organisations, they needed to have addressed the issues of the origins of the organisations themselves first.  More importantly, before they begin to impugn the character of a sizeable population of their students – the majority of whom are very diligent and hardworking young people – they should have done well to address the following questions: what are these so-called ‘essay mills’? Who are the students who use the services of ‘essay mills’? Why would some students resort to using the services of essay writing organisations? How do we explain the growth in the use of ‘essay mills’?

My investigation has been focused on addressing the above questions. In the investigations I used the method of Participant Research, which means that I registered with two leading essay writing organisations in the UK as a writer to achieve data collection. I found that the organisations’ recruitment processes were very rigorous. The academic qualifications and standards they required were similar and comparable, in all respects, to those I needed for    appointment at academic institutions in the UK or the US. The minimum qualification that was required in order for me to be accepted to write for UK undergraduates was a Master’s degree from a British University in the discipline in which I was applying to write.

What are ‘essay mills?

I had specified that I did not want to write for undergraduates because I had no recent experience of doing work with undergraduates. So, on my online application forms I stated that my interests were to write for Master’s and Doctorate degrees because at the time they were my areas of interest and work. In order to be accepted as a writer at those levels I was, firstly, required to prove that I have Master’s and Doctorate degrees from British universities in order to write for Master’s and Doctorate students in UK’s universities. Secondly, I was required to choose a pseudonym. And, thirdly, once I had proved my qualifications I was required to write a sample essay which would be linked to my pseudonym and profile. These would be made visible to students on the organisations’ websites. Therefore, students who use the services of these organisations do have the opportunity to assess writers and were able to choose the writers they would prefer to write for them.  Thus, having met all the criteria I was signed on not as a writer, but as a Research Associate because the organisations defined themselves as research organisations and people who write for them were referred to Research Associates and the intermediaries through whom Research Associates dealt with clients (students) were the Research Consultants.

 Thus, the term ‘essay mills’ create the impression that businesses which provide essay writing services are sleazy organisations; operating out of dingy offices; with writers hunched over faded computer keyboards, and churning out essays, dissertations, and theses to order. This impression is misleading because I found that these organisations, which were mostly from the US and Canada, and Eastern Europe, with affiliated offices in the UK, have very professional organisational cultures. Their business models cover a wide range of activities, including social and economic researches.  Essays, dissertations, and theses writing constituted a tiny fraction of their business activities.

And issues relating to considerations of whether or not their activities were ethical or unethical were beyond the scope of the investigation as I planned it, so I did not seek to enquire into them.

Thus, for universities to be lobbying the Secretary of State to ban these organisations is simplistic: a ban would never address the underlying problems because the origins of the problems which compel some students to access the services of these organisations lay not with students and the organisations which write essays, dissertations, and theses for them. Instead the problems lay with successive Governments and their Education Policies. Since the late 1970s successive Governments, at the behest and complaints from industries which have accused universities of producing unskilled graduates, have instrumentalised education and oriented it exclusively towards the perceived needs of the labour market. And the universities have been implicated in the instrumentalisation of education because their inability or unwillingness to contest both the Governments’ higher education policies and industries’ version of the role of education in the society amounts to an acceptance that they, indeed, do produce unskilled graduates.

Who are the students who use the services of ‘essay mills’?    

There were no face-to-face contacts with students. Similarly, there were no direct email contacts between me and students. All contacts with students were through their work and the organisation. The majority of the students with whose work I came in contact were overseas students and many of them spoke English as a second language and their backgrounds covered a broad range of abilities and intellectual acuity. Therefore, the arguments that the students who use the services of these organisations are plagiarists; are lazy, and are cheats, who simply sit back and sent their work away to ‘essay mills’ to be written for them are incorrect. Such arguments misrepresent the situation. And my investigation shows that they use the services of writing organisations at intermediate stages in their essays, dissertations, and theses because throughout the year long period covered by the investigations I did not come across any essays, dissertations, and theses which had not already been attempted to varying degrees of completion and success. In some cases, there were fully written essays, dissertations and theses, complete with literature reviews, descriptions of methodologies, data collection, analysis, discussions of results and inferences and conclusions, and bibliography and notes. In many instances my role consisted of no more than editing, reviewing and improving the essays, dissertations, and theses, particularly in terms of language.

Why would some students resort to using the services of essay writing organisations?

The students who use the services of essay writing organisations do so because of the realities of the situation in which they have found themselves and through no fault of theirs.  Because as I read some of their essays, dissertations and theses it became quite clear to me that the students who consult essay writing organisation for help do so in despair because they were faced with the choice of either dropping out or resorting to essay writing organisations. More importantly, it became clear that they had been let down by their universities because of poorly developed and inadequate feedbacks from lecturers and tutors and postgraduate supervisors. In other words, the feedbacks some of these students have received from some of their lecturers and tutors and postgraduate supervisors and which I read did not, in many cases, enable them to learn and make progress.

As I have written elsewhere, feedbacks in education must enable students, teachers, lecturers, and tutors, and postgraduate supervisors to learn together and engage in emancipatory curricular dialogues in which both parties talk the talk. These are two-way processes. On the part of teachers, lecturers, tutors and postgraduate supervisors learning and dialoguing from the feedback processes would come from diligent reading of the essays, dissertations and theses submitted to them by students. The learning should enable them to draw out and understand the academic problems and difficulties which students faced, and which were preventing them from making progress. And from such learning teachers, lecturers, tutors, and postgraduate supervisors must formulate their feedbacks in order to help students to overcome the academic problems they face and are thus enabled to make the desired progress. On the part of students, the feedbacks should enable them to learn and fill the gaps in their current state of knowledge and help them to progress to the desired levels of learning and achievement. These processes are not automated.  They are human. Thus, for some students a single well-developed and well-written feedback is all they would need to trigger learning and take them to the ultimate level. For some other students the processes are gradual and incremental. These are essential skills for students, teachers, lecturers, tutors, and postgraduate supervisors.

The feedbacks on some of the essays, dissertations and theses which were emailed to me for improvements or rewrite did not meet these basic requirements. For example, there were two theses which were emailed to me for repair. I noted these theses because they had been completed. One of the theses was for a Doctorate in Education (EdD). This student had reviewed the literature, defined, justified, and described the research methodology, conducted primary research and had written the entire thesis: over 60000 words. I read the entire thesis because I found it interesting and because it was in an area I have worked in previous researches and in my book: Ofsted: a case in the mismanagement of the standards of education in England.  The thesis was on performance management, teacher evaluation, assessment, and measurement with reference to teaching and learning in the student’s home country in the Middle East.

There were a number of major and minor improvements which the student would have needed to make to the thesis in order to pass. Thus, when I turned to the feedbacks I had expected that the supervisor would have noted and addressed the areas in which improvements were needed and that the areas would be specified in the feedbacks to the student. But as I read the feedbacks I was shocked. I initially thought that there had been a mistake and that the student had been sent feedbacks that were intended for another student, but when I looked at the student’s number on the thesis and the number on the feedbacks they were the same: no mistake had been made. The feedbacks did not address the topics of the thesis, not even in general terms did the headedness of the feedbacks identify and address any of the deficiencies in the thesis. Instead the feedback was a rambling discussion of issues which were completely meaningless and unrelated to the aims and methods of the thesis and which did nothing to help the student move the thesis forward. At some point during the rambling the supervisor even lapsed into criticism of the student and the thesis. When I finished reading the feedbacks I surmised that the area the supervisor had been asked to work with the student was not his area of expertise.

The other thesis was for the award of MSc in Education. Again, the thesis was complete: 30000 words of it. I read the entire thesis because it was on Interculturalism, Dialogues and Education, which was an area I had done some work in the past. The thesis needed minor restructuring for it to pass. But there was not much of a feedback to the student as to what he or she needed to do to improve the thesis.  And what feedbacks there were were mostly criticisms as to what the student did wrong and not much of what the student did right and what he or she could then do in order to pass. The main criticism was that the thesis lacked theoretical underpinnings. I interpreted the criticism to mean that the thesis was failed on the ground of literature. But I despaired as I read the criticisms. And I thought the student, too, would have despaired because there were no directions and suggestions of the appropriate types and sources of literature the student needed to access in order to move his or her thesis forward to pass. More importantly, Intercultural Dialogues, and their various derivations, namely, Interculturalism and Intercultural Competence, were Race Relations management tools popularised by the Council of Europe in a White Paper it wrote in 2008 and as far as I was aware at the time there were no specific and extant body of contemporary theories of Intercultural Dialogues which the student could have accessed. I know this because I wrote one of the criticisms of the Council of Europe’s White Paper and its stance on Intercultural Dialogues.  Thus, the supervisor’s feedbacks were unhelpful. And by extension the University was unhelpful to the student.

How do we explain the growth in the use of ‘essay mills’?

The above examples were not indicators of incompetence. And they were the exceptions rather than the norm within the broad range of work and feedbacks I came across. But they do point to wider underlying issues which have contributed immensely to increases in the use of essay writing organisations in the UK.

The results of my investigation show that the Government and universities are complicit in these wider issues as follows:

First, Government higher education policies are the main cause of the rise in the increasing number of students using the services of “essay mills”. Government policies, particularly the installation of higher education market and competition between universities for students, mean that some universities now admit students who are unable to write even basic research proposals to postgraduate programmes.

Second, universities’ policies and practices which were designed to implement Government policies have contributed to the growth because they have created opposing academic cultures in which, on the one hand, research and publication have become too elevated over teaching and learning and, on the other hand, the need to compete for students has led to students being adjusted to academic programmes and courses to which they are grossly unsuited. For some universities there is a culture that teaching, learning and supervision of postgraduate students do not enhance their Research Excellence Framework (REF) Ratings and the claims to world-class status to which they aspire as research-focused institutions.

Thus, irrespective of what their Mission Statements might have said about teaching and learning and student experience educational activities directed towards teaching and learning have become third-rated activities behind research and publication because they do not win accolades; not for universities or lecturers and tutors and postgraduate supervisors. And more importantly, they do not contribute to growths in universities’ Citation statistics. Thus, students, lecturers and tutors are caught in a hard place between the pursuits of research and publish, on the one hand, and on the other hand, they are caught in the pursuits of annual increases in REF Ratings and Citation figures. Lecturers and tutors are under pressure to teach, research and publish papers. The result, as the examples of the feedbacks mentioned show, is that students and their needs are less of a priority as they are pushed to the margins, where some of them struggle until they are compelled to buy help from essay writing organisations.

A sizeable number of research proposals written by potential research students came to me for improvement and sometimes for complete rewrite. There was one such proposal from a student who had been admitted to the degree of Doctor of Business Administration (DBA) in International Business, with particular reference to Oil Marketing and Finance in the Gulf. When I read the proposal, it was quite clear that the student had not written anything worth improving: the entire proposal needed to be written from the beginning because the proposal would never have passed any Academic Board in a British University.  More importantly, I thought the Department would be unable to offer adequate supervision to the student because, first, the thesis could never be written because it was too big and, second, I thought the topic area would have been better researched in the student’s own country. But when I turned to the feedbacks I found that the lecturer who assessed the proposal and who would subsequently become the student’s supervisor had written copious notes, including step-by-step guidelines in which she addressed the topic, detailed the improvements the student needed to make and specified the literary requirements and sources. Even with the notes and guidance the student was still unable to develop the research proposal and had to resort to essay writing services.  

Thus, the origins of the increases in the use of ‘essay mills’ lay, in part, within universities.  Evidently, even though the university knew  that the above potential DBA student would be unable to meet the academic challenges of a DBA degree the student was, nevertheless, admitted to the programme because if the university rejected him or her the competitor would not. In other words, in their implementation of Government higher education policies universities have installed models of corporate cultures which have let their students down by colluding to admitting them onto courses for which they are unsuited. And the fact that some students have had to pay privately for the help that should have been available to them from the universities’ own resources demonstrates how wide the gaps which those cultures have opened between students and their universities have become.


The investigation involved ethnography because it used ethnographic dialogues between students work and me. There were no face-to-contacts and direct interactions therefore issues relating to informed consent did not arise.  

Although, I did not write anything directly for students during the investigation I did give advice indirectly through my Research Consultant.  And because I needed to keep the investigation going, I did read the materials that were emailed to me and I did, for example, email responses to my Research Consultant to tell the students concerned that if I were in their positions I would leave, say, these or those parts of the essay, dissertation or thesis in place because they are good, and then to tell students, say, do this or that here or there or do these or those over there, and so on. But I never took any fees, except when I had to ask for a refund because I had to go to Oxford to look at Unpublished Thesis which I couldn’t access online because it was only the Abstract that was online and I had to stay there overnight. So, I did not take any fees because, to me, there were wider ethical issues about whether education should be freely offered and freely received. 

But because I was using students’ work (documents as they were) in my investigation without their consent that left me with the problems of the wider ethical issues involving the ownership of the assessed pieces of work I was accessing without informing the organisation and students that I was investigating plagiarism. I addressed these wider ethical issues, which I called the ‘Ethics of Consideration’,  in 2012 as a way of examining human motives, be human motives in education, research or policy-making, or otherwise. And I partly resolved some of these wider issues in 2013 and 2014 in my arguments with OFSTED using the Freedom of Information Act. The Information Commissioner agreed with my arguments that because universities are publicly funded lecturers, tutors and postgraduate supervisors are public employees and any pieces of work they generate as a part of their employment were public documents. Therefore, once students have submitted their essays, dissertations and theses for assessment and have been assessed and commented on by the appropriate university employees they become public documents. Accordingly, the investigation did not intrude into the sanctity of the private documents generated by students.

So what were my motives in carrying out the investigation? Were they ethical or unethical?  In answer to these questions my thoughts were that my motives were ethical because I did not do the investigation for any personal gains. Therefore, to my mind the investigation was for the common good and that it was ethical for me to help, unconditionally, any student who many need such help during the life of the investigation.


‘Essay mills’ are merely using the consequences of universities’ responses to and implementation of Government Policies to exploit weak students who would otherwise have failed because of lack of adequate support systems from their universities.  And banning them would not solve the problem; instead a ban would simply move these organisations to reinvent and re-establish themselves elsewhere. If, indeed, Government is able to ban the ones that operate in the UK, how is it going to go about banning the ones in the US, Canada, and the Ukraine which provide similar services via the internet?

The solutions to the problems of plagiarism are to be found within the universities.  They should contest the Government’s Policy which has created competition for students between universities.  And universities need to relearn the fact that a university without students is not a university. Therefore, a first steps towards the solutions to the problems posed by plagiarism would be that universities should stop adjusting their students to corporate cultures and instead should instead adjust their corporate cultures to students by bringing them back to the centre of gravity of the reasons why universities exist.