Turnitin was initially used to detect plagiarism.
More recently, the firm appears to have successfully persuaded many universities to give students access to the tool before formal submission. Simple copy-paste plagiarism may therefore have been replaced by more effective paraphrasing and growing numbers of essay-for-hire services.
If this is true, the costs of cheating have raised for both cheats and institutions.
The costs to cheats include the financial cost of the essay and the opportunity cost of the learning forgone. The costs to institutions include higher enforcement costs and the reputation effects when graduates with good degrees are unable to perform in further studies or in the job market at the level expected.
In purely short-run financial terms, cheating looks cheap in three ways.
If the fees reported in The Telegraph are correct, £1700 for a dissertation is relatively cheap. Over the 12 weeks of a masters dissertation, a student would only have to work 22 hours per week to gross the cost of buying the dissertation (at the statutory minimum wage).
In business and management, for example, a masters degree can be upward of £15000 (and often more than £25000) and the dissertation worth one-third of the degree. Buying a dissertation therefore might add less than 10% to the cost of the degree (assuming accommodation costs need paying whether studying or working).
Because dissertations require significant amounts of learning but very little assessment, essay mill writers can create dissertations for much less effort than students (using templates of common topics, probably in less than a week).
The question then becomes how to change the relative costs of using an essay mill service.
Making more assessment examination based is one alternative, but then takes out of the equation the learning that happens during longer form research and writing.
Creating more unusual questions, that require essay mill writers more effort to address ought to increase the financial costs of buying an essay. However, the demand for essay mill output might be price inelastic for students that can afford high fees.
Closer supervision and smaller tutor groups will increase students’ learning and confidence and make commissioned essays more obvious (but no easier to prove to academic offences committees).
Making students aware of the long-run costs of not learning might help. This requires educators to spend more time making the relevance of the tasks they set more obvious.
However the relative cost issue is addressed, the distinction between an education (and its value) and the certificate of completion (and its long-term irrelevance) ought to be much stronger.
Perhaps we could all start by not talking about getting a ‘good degree’ and instead talk about getting a good education, being able to understand and solve complex problems, etc.
Read the full article on The Telegraph website.