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8th May 2012

Buy yourself a 2:1

Students purchasing essays and taking smart drugs constitute a potential market for deception

Written by Emily Bunting & Oliver Taylor

From signing university contracts, to stern e-mails and talks in lectures, plagiarism in the world of academia can ruin a degree, a career and even a profession. The hard line taken by the University of Manchester demonstrates the seriousness of such offences, with online essay submissions being scanned through the use of high-tech software and a strict illegal drugs policy. With university end of year exams just around the corner, we here at the Business and Finance section of the Mancunion have decided to look into a market where the apparently stark line of plagiarism and performance enhancement becomes all the more grey.

Thousands of students across the country will be graduating this year, with minimum expectations of achieving a 2:1 degree (the minimum class required for most graduate jobs). With the environment of a near-saturated jobs market, the looming repayment of student loans on the horizon and alternatives of increasingly expensive masters programmes, the pressure to perform is higher than ever. This can be seen to have contributed to the creation of a more alternative student market. The seemingly most lucrative of businesses designed to exploit these fears, are businesses set up to write tailored essays for students and the demand for cognitive enhancing ‘smart drugs’.

Students across the country appear willing to cough up as much as £200 of their hard earned government loans to pay for essays written to their specification in under 24 hours. This comes with a guaranteed classification for the essay (prices varying according to the desired grade) and apparently no risk of being caught by the essay scanning systems. With such an attractive offer, it is no surprise that the essay writing market in the UK is valued at over £200 million.

The widespread occurrence, and even to some degree acceptance, of cheating is apparent on looking at the results of a 2010 Manchester University study, which found that 45 percent of students were ‘sure’ that in the past year another student had cheated in some form of work submitted towards their degree. Such figures illustrate the extent of demand for services such as essay writing.

It is clear however, that students will not stop there. The demanding student lifestyle of continuous essays and early morning lectures, on top of late nights (every night) and hours of sport training for some, seems to have made it ever harder to study and make productive use of time spent in the library. A growing number of students find drugs such as Ritalin and Modafinil (intended to treat disorders such as ADHD and narcolepsy) can help them block out distractions, stay awake for longer and therefore study harder.

Whilst there seem to be mixed conceptions of the extent of the ‘smart drugs’ market, on asking around, we needed little effort to find many students who had at least tried one of these (technically illegal if not prescribed) smart drugs. Simply googling ‘buy Ritalin’ directs you to a large number of websites openly selling the class B drug without prescription, where it retails for around £1 – £3 a pill. The equivalent search for Modafinil is even more startling. A company called Sheffield Modafinil actively markets the drug towards students and the testimonials page contains two from students at the University of Manchester. On the black market, Modafinil retails at between £2-£3 a pill depending on the quantity purchased. It is more expensive to buy legally (in other countries) and the equivalent dose costs £4. The illegal and therefore unregulated market, as well as the taboo nature of the product, means that some unscrupulous sellers are profiteering by selling placebos or less effective substances to boost their profit margins. No academic has ever tried to estimate the value of the UK smart drugs market, however increasing jobs and university pressure could suggest potential for growth.

If buying smart drugs and online essays are as effective as some (but importantly not all) claim, it may become difficult to compare a student’s performance and the value of their degree. For now however, the current situation is far from ideal. Manchester University has no official policy on cognition enhancers and whilst essay purchasing is contractually cheating, the expanding market seems to suggest certain levels of their success.

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