I went undercover for this Sunday Times investigation into the ‘essay mill’ Oxbridge Essays, posing as several students seeking to cheat in their undergraduate degree.
I spoke to employees who were willing to:
- provide a ghost-written exam answer for a student sitting a 24-hour take-home history exam at Bristol University, guaranteed to a guaranteed first level, and submit on her behalf directly to the university, for £630
- provide an 8000-word social psychology dissertation ready to be turned in to Oxford University exam schools under a student’s name, at guaranteed upper-first level, for £2005
“So I’d just open up the word document and copy it into another one, stick my candidate number on it and submit it?”
As part of the sting I set the company my own dissertation title from my university days, then handed the first two-thirds of Oxbridge Essays’ offering to my former supervisor Miles Hewstone, professor of social psychology at Oxford University, to have it assessed. He said: “The whole thing has a bit of a cut and paste feel… the main complaint is that they have not included any work since 2010 — there’s no way you would get a first for that. There is some loose language too.
“Reading all this, I am inclined to say we should bring back viva voce exams, so that every student expects/fears that they might be viva’d on any aspect of their Finals. This might help to cut down this vile practice.”
Full text of the resulting article, plus an audio recording of my conversation with Paul Serrecchia, one of Oxbridge Essays ‘academic consultants’, is available on the Sunday Times website here, or after the break.
‘£630 and I’ll put you on the way to a first’
A firm that claims to supply model essays to students is exposed offering to help them cheat with exam papers priced by grade and degree level
A SCANDAL involving a firm that charges hundreds of pounds to write exam answers for cheating students has been exposed by The Sunday Times.
An employee at Oxbridge Essays, which sells “custom-made undergraduate and master’s essays”, told an undercover reporter that for £630 he would arrange for an exam answer to be written to first-class standard and was willing to pose as the student to submit it.
The employee, who described himself as an “academic consultant”, assured the reporter that the company “wiped” evidence of its involvement from all documents to reduce the chance of the student being caught.
Another employee said the firm had produced “nearly 5m words” for students during the last academic year.
Universities are increasingly concerned about the activities of so-called “essay mills” such as Oxbridge Essays, which, they say, exploit vulnerable students and undermine the education system.
The firms deny that their services promote plagiarism or cheating. In its terms and conditions Oxbridge Essays says that “the client must never submit as if their own work, either in part or total, to their university, school or any other institute of education, written materials sold to them”. But our investigation caught Oxbridge Essays employees willing to help breach those rules.
The company “totally rejects” this allegation. As well as offering bespoke essays, it promotes a “model exam answer service”, supposedly to help students sitting “open book and 24hr exams” which allow students to complete an exam answer unmonitored within a set time period.
Posing as a history undergraduate at Bristol University, the reporter sent an email to Oxbridge Essays asking for its help with a take-home exam question on the “reflective history” course due for completion within 24 hours.
Paul Serrecchia, an “academic consultant”, replied: “That is certainly something we can help you with.” He quoted a price of £390 for an answer that would achieve a 2:1 mark and £630 for a first.
Asked during a subsequent telephone call if it would be possible for the university to tell that the answer had been written by someone else, Serrecchia replied: “We wipe the document completely — there’s nothing there.”
Asked if he would log in as the student and submit the answer electronically, he confirmed that he would “be happy to do that”.
In an email confirming the order he wrote: “The writer has gone through it and said that this will be no problem in completing to a distinction standard.”
Bristol University said it was confident that despite Serrecchia’s claims it would have identified the effort to cheat in the exam.
The problem of essay mills will feature at the International Integrity and Plagiarism Conference, which will begin tomorrow in Gateshead. Phil Newton, a neuroscientist at Swansea University who has researched plagiarism and will speak at the event, said: “The conversation with the rep from Oxbridge Essays speaks for itself. The contrast with their stated policy is very clear.”
A study of essay mill websites conducted by Birmingham City University last year found there had been more than 19,000 attempts at cheating by UK students since 2005. The researchers acknowledged that this figure was probably only “the tip of the iceberg”.
Our investigation suggests that students trying to cheat may be disappointed with the service provided.
Oxbridge Essays claims its bespoke essays are written by “a team of academics from the very best UK universities … they include many professors, lecturers and PhD holders”.
It also claims to be “the only company to allow you to meet your essay writer face-to-face”.
Posing as a different student, the reporter requested an 8,000-word dissertation on social psychology at Oxford with a 75%-plus mark and a chance to “meet the writer”. The firm quoted £1,550 at first, but that was raised first to £1,910 and then to £2,005.
The reporter was told the writer would have a PhD-level Oxbridge qualification. After the first instalment was paid, the promise of a “face-to-face” meeting became a conference call and the writer’s expertise fell from a PhD to someone with a master’s qualification who was working towards a PhD.
The firm supplied about two-thirds of the completed dissertation, which was assessed by Miles Hewstone, professor of social psychology at Oxford.
“The whole thing has a bit of a cut-and-paste feel … There’s no way you would get a first for that,” he said.
Oxbridge Essays received a reprimand from the Advertising Standards Authority last year over a “misleading” advertisement in which it implied that students had a money-back guarantee if they failed to secure the mark or grade they had ordered.
The company is part of The Oxbridge Research Group (TORG), a network of companies run by the Malamatinas brothers Stratos, Philip and James and their mother Susan.
TORG said: “We totally reject these allegations. We are certain no employee has ever logged on to a university portal posing as a client or student.
“Unlike others in this space, we have adopted rigorous procedures to prevent misuse of our service.
“We take great pride in the collaborative process we offer our clients. Indeed, over 300 students have met with our academics either in person or via Skype this academic year.”
Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of Universities UK, which represents 134 universities, said: “Submitting work written by someone else is cheating and devalues the efforts of students who work hard to achieve their degrees.”