International students are paying for their work to be proofread, edited and, in some cases, written entirely, by professional writers and agencies, raising concerns around issues of support and plagiarism.
"Most students who ask me for a quotation are from outside the UK and English is their second language," says Louise Harnby, who has been a professional proofreader since 2005. "Many of them simply don't have the access to sufficient language-support services at their university."
Harnby says she has experienced an increase in the number of foreign students seeking proofreading support, which she says is in line with the rise in the number of international students studying in the UK – a trend recently proved to be unstable, with figures from the Higher Education Funding Council of England (Hefce) showing the UK experienced a fall in the total number of international students for the first time in 29 years in 2013.
Whether it's acceptable or not for students to use proofreading services to help them with their work has divided academic opinion. Some say the practice is blatant cheating, while others argue that it can help students with weak English language skills and dyslexia.
Harnby says: "I don't think most students are trying to cheat – I think they're trying to do the best they can with the language skills they have."
Judy Carroll, who runs workshops on deterring students from plagiarism and effective teaching of international students, says that using proofreading services can been seen as cheating and that students should always "go for transparency" when submitting assessed work.
She says: "I define cheating as students seeking an unfair learning advantage. If a student is saying, 'Give me credit because I can write grammatically correct and error-free text', then the student is misleading the assessor and seeking an unfair learning benefit as it isn't their skills and their learning that is being judged.
"If the student is submitting ideas, arguments, original work, research etc for credit (so, content not text), then using a proofreader seems a very useful thing."
Carroll, who was formerly educational developer at Oxford Brookes University, says students are "probably not" getting the support they need at universities. A reason for this, she suggests, is because "many have needs that exceed any reasonable ability to meet them, and more than a few wish things to be done for them rather than them getting down and dirty with the hard work of writing!"
Proofreading agencies boast of being able to improve grades and offer the academic support which they claim universities have failed to provide. They also empathise with students on the difficulties of studying for a degree in a foreign language.
On its website, Cambridge Proofreading LCC states: "If you do not get a significantly improved grade from our proofreading and editing work, we will give you a full refund."
Another agency, Oxford Tutors, states: "Most students are being let down by their universities in providing them with adequate tutorial support (...). This is where we step in!"
Others openly say that they will write essays for students. One agency, good-essay-writers.com, claims to provide "100% plagiarism-free papers" for those who "have no time or inspiration".
But all this comes at a price. Students can pay anything from £5.45 to £19.35 per 1,00 words for an essay under 80,000 words, depending on their requirements.
Some of the services offered far exceed what universities and some proofreaders would see as legitimate intervention in students' work, but free-market rules apply for the use of these services, and therefore, it's up to universities to police any academic dishonesty.
Although most universities have now designed policies on proofreading and copy-editing for students – with many forbidding the use of such agencies, or requiring students to be open about using them – it's still difficult to prove and there is uncertainty about whether universities are willing to act.
Julia Molinari, English for Academic Purposes (EAP) tutor and PhD researcher at the University of Nottingham, says there isn't much academics can do about students using these services because "plagiarism software can't detect a ghost text in so far as it is de facto original. It's a bit of a taboo topic, one we tend to gloss over and one that leaves a bitter aftertaste."
Alan Smithers, the director of the centre for education and employment research at Buckingham University, says: "I once had a PhD student whose thesis was so much better than her command of English led me to expect, but the university (not Buckingham) did not want to get involved in an investigation."
He suggests the use of proofreading agencies by undergraduates could be "greatly reduced by switching back to actual examinations". He says: "The ever-increasing reliance on coursework is an open invitation to seek external props where you can find them."
Kim Shahabudin, study adviser at the University of Reading, says her university does not recommend professional proofreaders because of the "danger that intended meaning may be changed".
She says: "We advise international students who are not confident about their academic writing to ask a fellow student, who is a native English speaker, to read through their work with them. This way they learn, self-correct and gain more confidence in their language skills."
Following the scandal over alleged plagiarism and the extra assistant given to Saif al-Islam Gaddafi during his PhD at LSE in 2011, the Office of the Independent Adjudicator (OIA) urged universities to develop clear policies on what kind of academic help students were allowed to access.
Rob Behrens, the independent adjudicator, says: "Universities need to be rigorous in defining what is permitted, and to set this out clearly.
"Buying essays and submitting them as one's own is regarded as academic misconduct. The OIA has reviewed a number of complaints involving both kinds of practice."
In the US, the use of external academic support services is more generally accepted, providing students disclose what they've had help with. Australia has gone one step further and had the Australian Standards for Editing Practice (Asep) embedded in universities' degree regulations.
Because not every UK university has established guidelines around proofreading – including Coventry University which says that it's now developing a policy around the use of proofreading services – are students clear about what the rules are and whether it's an acceptable level of support?
Since the OIA has no plans to establish guidelines in this area, it's down to universities to clarify.
Proofreader Louise Harnby says although she doesn't look over students' work without written consent from their supervisors, she would like to see a more "unified policy throughout the UK so that both domestic and foreign students know exactly where they stand."
With no hard data, it's hard to say how many students use these services. But what's clear is that not all students believe it's ethical.
Victoria Jayne Dovey, a creative writing student at the University of East Anglia, says she has noticed an increase in advertisements on social networking sites boasting copywriting services for students, but that this has never tempted her to use them. She says: "I have never been interested in such a thing despite numerous deadlines and final year stress as it would undermine my past four years of study."
On a student forum discussion about using proofreading services, one commenter, who blogged under the name Philbert, wrote: "If you can't be bothered to write your own essays, you shouldn't be at university."
Since international students bring in money, and lots of it, and there's no cap on the number of international students that UK universities can recruit, the questions that begs an answer is how universities are going to ensure that they maintain professional integrity and standards, while providing academically sound degrees to the foreign students they recruit.
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