Monday, March 30, 2009

The Globalization of Cheating

There is a fascinating story in the Chronicle of Higher Education about the growth of the essay writing business. It seems that around the world there are shadowy companies employing dozens or hundreds of writers churning out essays for university students at every level.

'The writers for essay mills are anonymous and often poorly paid. Some of them crank out 10 or more essays a week, hundreds over the course of a year. They earn anywhere from a few dollars to $40 per page, depending on the company and the subject. Some of the freelancers have graduate degrees and can write smooth, A-level prose. Others have no college degree and limited English skills.

James Robbins is one of the good ones. Mr. Robbins, now 30, started
working for essay mills to help pay his way through Lamar University, in Beaumont, Tex. He continued after graduation and, for a time, ran his own company under the name Mr. Essay. What he's discovered, after writing hundreds of academic papers, is that he has a knack for the form: He's fast, and his papers consistently earn high marks. "I can knock out 10 pages in an hour," he says. "Ten pages is nothing."
His most recent gig was for Essay Writers. His clients have included students from top colleges like the University of Pennsylvania, and he's written short freshman-comp papers along with longer, more sophisticated fare. Like all freelancers for Essay Writers, Mr. Robbins
logs in to a password-protected Web site that gives him access to the company's orders. If he finds an assignment that's to his liking, he clicks the "Take Order" button. "I took one on Christological topics in the second and third centuries," he remembers. "I didn't even know what that meant. I had to look it up on Wikipedia." '

There are interviews with some of the professional essay writers. Two of them are Americans with law degrees. Another is a Nigerian with a master's degree from the University of Lagos. Many others appear to be from the Philippines and India.

Customers of the essay mills include a doctoral student in aerospace engineering at MIT and graduate students at Northern Kentucky University, James Madison University and the University of Southern Mississippi.

Nobody seems to be asking what is wrong with selection for American and British universities when there are thousands of students who cannot do the academic work required while there are people without degrees who are able to produce acceptable work for relatively trivial wages. Some of the writers for the paper mills do have degrees. With their obvious and marketable research and writing skills shouldn't they be in doctoral programmes or academic appointments?

Is it possible that the trend towards holistic admissions in the US and the dumbing down of A-levels in the UK have something to do with it? If students are admitted to university on the basis of leadership, social skills displayed at interviews, participating in community service, overcoming adversity and the writing (by whom ?) of admission essays rather than the cognitive abilities and background knowledge necessary to do academic work then it would seem that the essay mill business is essential to keep the system going.

I have a suggestion for any university that wants to improve student and faculty quality within a short period. Find an essay mill operator, appoint him as admissions and recruitment officer and give scholarships to the essay writers who do not have degrees and faculty positions to those who do.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Best Places for Postdocs

The Scientist has published its annual report on the best places for postdocs. A certain amount of scepticism is in order. There are dramatic changes in position from 2008 and 2009 -- for example, this year's number 1 in the US, the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research, was number 14 last year -- that suggest a certain amount of caution is needed.

Nonetheless, the results are interesting. First, in the US the tables are dominated by non-university institutions. Is it possible that politicisation and declining academic standards are beginning to have a noticeable effect on the quality of American university research?

Second, in the international category the top three positions are held by German, Danish and Dutch institutions. The only English university in the international top ten is York. What happened to Imperial College, Oxford and Cambridge?

Friday, March 06, 2009

Interesting New Blog

Go here.

International Education Blogs ~ A New Blogging Project by David Comp
International Education Blogs is a new blogging project I started today as an effort to bring all of the blogs on the web that touch on international education issues into one central location. Essentially it will be a blog roll with a few postings. Please bear with me as I learn the technology. This initial launch will have two different blog lists for you to review.The first list of blogs will be those of people who are blogging on the field/state of international education and related matters.The second list of blogs will be those of students and others who are currently blogging from a foreign location.