Banks of essays on just about any subject are available on the Internet; you just have to know where to look. Students say they are being submitted as part of degree coursework.
Simon Rogerson, director for the centre of computing and social responsibility at Leicester's De Montfort University, believes the problem could be on such a scale that students need to be given moral awareness tuition to make sure that they stick to a code of conduct and realise that cheating will not be tolerated.
"The use of a credit card could make all the difference between a pass or failure," he said. "We believe it is now possible for a student to locate the subject matter needed, pay for it, download it and hand it in. We believe mid-coursework essays of a typical length of around 3,000 words are readily available from unscrupulous companies looking to cash in on gullible students.
"Lecturers are becoming more aware of the problem, and one way to avoid it is, perhaps, to ask for customised or personalised submissions."
He didn't know of any student at De Montfort University who had been caught cheating, but said: "This new development is one that we all need to be aware of, and we need to let students know that surfing copycats will be found out."
Dr Richard Mobb, head of learning technology at the university, thinks students throughout the country are buying essays off the Internet, for about Pounds 50 for 3,000 words. "The trouble is, undergraduates in many cases know more about the workings of the Net than lecturers do. They have the time to surf it - time that lecturers simply do not have. This means that they know where to find access to exactly what they need.
"There is an underground electronic communication going on, not only between students at a single university, but between students throughout the country - they're telling each other where to look, and we don't know ourselves!
"One saving grace is that within a relatively short time we can slot a student into a first, 2.1 or 2.2 potential. If someone who might get a third suddenly submits a course essay worthy of a first, we are going to get very suspicious. "
Several undergraduates told The TES about ways of accessing academic work on the Net from leading American universities, including Cornell and Berkeley. We were also told of a mythological character whose name is the key word to call up in-depth essays for sale on a particular degree subject.