Writing a dissertation is the most time-consuming and arduous piece of work a student will undertake while at university. Many late and sleepless nights spent at the library and hundreds of hours worth of work typify what most degree-holders remember when they look back on the days of writing their theses. But for many people in Tehran, this is a world apart from their experience.

The Iranian capital is witnessing a growing, and worrying, new trend; the mass purchase of pre-written or bespoke dissertations. Students, some of them with more money than sense, can stroll into a number of institutes or private organizations in Tehran that write students’ dissertations as a paid service. For a significant fee, pupils then sit back and relax while somebody else puts in the gruelling work that a good thesis requires.

Referring to themselves as “Research Institutes” or “Science Consultation Institutes,” these companies shamelessly advertise their services across Tehran.This is particularly the case in the area surrounding Enghelab Square, where Iran’s oldest university, Tehran University, is located — an area that is awash with students, teachers and other academic faculty staff.

Leaflets advertising “dissertation services” are illegally posted across building walls, on electricity poles, traffic lights and cash machines. Many of the institutes push their services on their websites, which are incredibly easy for potential customers to find through simple searches. Although neither the websites or the leaflets provide much information about the services on offer, they do provide clients with contact details, such as telephone numbers and addresses, so that students can either call the dissertation writers directly or visit one of the offices offering the services.

The institutes cover a range of dissertation subjects, including humanities, business management and social sciences, as well as almost all Master’s and PhD subjects offered at Iranian universities, from law to computer science and the arts.

Paying someone to write your dissertation will set you back between $650 and $1100, depending on the subject. Given this is the twice the price of a monthly flat rent in a decent part of Tehran, only wealthy students can afford to do this.

“Our team writes a proposal and the first payment is due when that proposal has been approved,” one institute says. “If the dissertation is a fail, students get a full refund.”

A significant proportion of the institutes started out offering more traditional services, such as tutoring, translation services and advising research projects and theses for postgraduate students. But, the institutes say, they began writing dissertations as well because there was huge demand for it from Master’s and PhD students.

Those writing the dissertations for students hold Master’s Degrees or PhDs from relevant fields. As experts in their own academic disciplines, it takes them just three months or less to write the papers.

“We welcome customers that have already had their proposals accepted, but we prefer to help students choose their topics,” says the founder of one institute, who asked to remain anonymous. “For additional fees, we’re willing to write the proposal as well.”

In the final stages of the business arrangement, institutes even discuss with their customers what to say and do if the university accuses them of plagiarism and they need to defend themselves in front of relevant academic committees.

“University committees are very busy. They’ve got a lot of students, so they can’t spend a lot of time finding out who’s been plagiarising,” says Maryam, both a PhD student and a lecturer at a university in Tehran. “This means that students can pass their dissertations without ever being questioned, as long as the topic is new and there’s evidence of solid research.”

“I worked hard on my MA dissertation,” Maryam says. “I had many sleepless nights to ensure I got a good degree and eventually I did. I graduated with a distinction, but on the surface there’s no difference between my work and that of the people who’ve cheated. It’s really unfair. ”

According to official reports, the number of postgraduate students in Iran has increased dramatically in recent decades. In the period following the Islamic Revolution, there were just 176,000 students, but there are now over four and a half million. There are also eight times as many Master’s and PhD students as there were in the late 1970s. Despite this, the quality of university education has dropped and many universities lack sufficient accommodation for students.

In Iran, having a university degree is well respected and many families expect their sons and daughters to finish their degrees before getting married. Having a good second degree also makes young people more appealing to prospective suitors. Because of these pressures, many young people compete with one another to get the highest degree possible. It is also widely believed that getting a promotion at work is often directly correlated to having a university degree.

“Most of the students who come to us have jobs and are too busy with work and their lives outside of university to do their dissertations. Many of them want a better university degree, even though the degree in question is often unrelated to their career,” says the anonymous institute founder.

The exact number of students using these services is unknown but the Iranian government acknowledges the problem. In the past, President Rouhani has asked involved parties to take action and prevent the situation worsening.

“There is no efficient system to check plagiarism in Iran, so dissertations that are copied or translated are accepted in some universities,” says an anonymous source at the Science and Technology Ministry. “Generally speaking, the ministry doesn’t concern itself with the issue but if the press writes about it, we’ll take action for a short while and temporarily close some of the institutes.”

Information about these institutes is easy to find, as are their offices. What is less visible is any effective plan by the Iranian government to counteract students from buying dissertations and similar products, and from institutes selling them in the first place. Until that day comes, the dissertation industry will continue to flourish, as will anger and frustration among students that are doing the work themselves and receiving the same amount of credit, if not less, than those who are paying for it.

This article has been published on IranWire.