A modest proposal to improve the efficiency of assessment in universities


Essay writing and assessment is a drag. For academics, it eats out an awful lot of time which could be devoted to research or other productive activities counting for tenure. For students, writing essays requires a great deal of investment and time which could be more productively spent on facebook or other things that the youth of today does. Moreover, the extent to which it really is able to assess learning – rather than abilities acquired or inherited completely outside university – is questionable.

Luckily, the student side of it is being rationalised along market principles. A couple of weeks ago, at a time where most students are precisely writing essays for May deadlines, I was handed out the card above right in front of the entrance of my university. The man who was distributing cards for this “essay and dissertation help” company was surely unaware that I am actually supposed to mark essays rather than write them. Arrived in my office, I checked the website (deleted here not to provide any “advertisement help”) and the “help” provided is fairly straight forward: they write essays for you. You give the subject, word length, the deadline, and the website provides an “instant quote” with a list of prices which depend on the grade you want. This is what I got for a 3500 word essay in politics with a deadline in two weeks:


Now, this system has a number of deficiencies. First, how can you be sure that you will get the grade that you paid for? I wonder how the writers who work for this essay mill – surely drawn from the army of underpaid PhD students roaming around in need of income to survive – manage to lower their level to a 2.2 standard, for instance. Second, given the somehow shady nature of the activity, how can students who paid for a First and got a 2.2 obtain compensation? They surely won’t seek redress from justice by exposing their own practices. Third, this does nothing for the time wasted by academics to mark these essays, so that the system remains broadly inefficient. There is no reason why students should be the only ones benefiting from the wonders of outsourcing.

A simple solution to this problem would be to diversify the activities of these essay mills to cater for the needs of academics as well. Teachers would outsource the marking of the said essays to the same companies that write them for students. Shady “essay mills” would become very respectable “assessment contractors”. This would increase the efficiency of assessment for both students and academic staff. The first advantage of this would naturally be to relieve academics from the burden of reading and marking essays. The second would be to reduce the uncertainty for students: if the same company writes and assesses the essays, it can make sure that they get the grade that they paid for. The natural evolution of this would of course be to suppress the essays altogether, and students would pay the assessment contractors directly for their mark. The payroll costs of the assessment contractors would go down because no actual writing would take place, and profitability for shareholders would increase. As I argued in another modest proposal, there is no reason that the practice of marketisation that has been so successful elsewhere shouldn’t be extended to assessment, for the benefit of teachers and learners.


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