The Death Of The Dissertation?



I’m supposed to be a learning futurist, so allow me to make a prediction: within 10 years the university dissertation will be dead. Its death will be greeted with relief by academics who are currently turning a blind eye to the rising trend of ‘outsourcing’ of dissertations and essay writing.

We’ve got a perfect storm of circumstances which leads me to think that dissertations will be totally discredited over the next decade: the rise in online courses making it harder to be found out; increased pressure upon universities to accept – and retain – more international students; and a glut of graduates who can’t find work and so turn to helping meet the rising demand for ghostwriters.

No-one knows how many students ‘cheat’ in this way – in the UK alone 45,000 students during 2008-11 were caught cheating. The numbers are likely to have risen considerably since then, and any figures only capture those caught, anyway.  The scale of supply, however, is truly amazing. There are thousands of sites offering to craft anything from a high-school essay to a PhD dissertation. One was honest enough to admit to processing over 400 orders per day. You do the maths – actually, don’t bother, just pay someone else to do it.

Having an actual person write your essay isn’t like plagiarism. Plagiarism software solutions like TurnItIn are useless here. Paying for an original piece of writing isn’t plagiarising, and it can’t be electronically identified as not belonging to you.

As a purchaser, you can choose the standard of submission and so make it less likely to arouse suspicion. Sites like UKEssays give you the option of choosing your grade:

Outsourcing essays

Such sites are quite unabashed about their moral position. It’s not cheating, they argue, because they’re just providing ‘model’ essays and, well, you’re too busy working to have to write the thing yourself. Besides, it’s an entirely, 100% confidential service.

Since higher education is increasingly being seen as a (costly) hurdle to be overcome in the pursuit of a job, there’s an interesting shift being taken on the ethics involved. An Eastern European woman, studying in the UK ,is typical of many:

“I think it would be bad if I got caught and everything. But really, it’s not illegal and I’m not copying someone’s work or anything. Besides I know loads of people who have done it.”

Professor Christopher Bigsby recently cited  a student protest in China, in response to attempts to crack down on cheating:

“In 2013 there were riots in Hubei province in China when invigilators tried to prevent cheating in a national exam. Rioters chanted, “There is no fairness if you do not let us cheat.”  

Unless there is a significant shift in the way we assess students, more companies will follow Google’s lead in not hiring on the basis of their degree qualification.  The solution, I believe, is not only inevitable, it’s also desirable. There will surely be an increasing focus on testing knowledge through exams, but I can also see a rise in the acquisition of a performance portfolio – how you actually implement the knowledge acquired. This will merely reflect the industry recognition that, unless you’re headed for an academic career, your value, as an employee, lies less in your knowledge than in the way you make that knowledge work for you.

It’s ironic that the commodification of higher education is now leading to its devaluation, but can we really blame the perpetrators? I was in a London pub last summer, chatting to the young, highly articulate, graduate barman while he shared his difficulty in getting the job his degree had prepared him for.

“So, what else do you do to supplement your income?” I asked.

“I write dissertations for international students”, he replied, “£500 for 5,000 words. There’s tons of my friends doing it”.

“Do you not feel morally compromised?” I asked, trying to hide my disapproval.

“Not at all”, he said. “It’s the natural end-product of a market-driven system”.

I had no reply.

Discount on dissertations

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2 Responses to The Death Of The Dissertation?

  1. Kerstyn says:

    Nice article. One aspect of the analysis that I think you’ve missed is that students are concious that there is no long term value in most dissertations, their purpose is simply to demonstrate to one person (their examiner) what they know. If you know you can get away with it cheating will always be a more efficient & secure method. A few years ago I completed a PhD as a mature student. it quickly became obvious that there was limited value in the final thesis other than a trophy to sit on my shelf in recognition of the toil and anguish I’d had to endure. Although a public document a thesis is almost inaccessible, generally hidden in one library and rarely on line. But the academic world is slowly introducing a better solution. At the instance of my supervisor my final thesis was the compilation of 4 peer reviewed published papers. This made the thesis relevant and independently assessed. By making it have a real value, that was carefully interrogated meant it was inconceivable to get someone else to do the work.

    • David says:

      Thanks for sharing, and the valuable point you make about relevance. The increasing importance of a public audience for student work is critical here. I can see a point, in a more entrepreneurial HE system, where the public assessment – by the impact their knowledge and skills have made – carries at least as much weight as their supervisor’s!

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