Anyone who has been to university will understand the time and effort needed to write lengthy dissertations and essays as part of their degree course.

Often months of commitment of researching and writing means any chance of a social life is blown out the water. Anxious students embark on so called “all nighters” to get the job done while a Saturday night out with friends is shunned for an evening of knuckling down into an 8,000-word thesis.

But increasingly students are now turning to their wallets to get their hands on academic work. An ever-growing number of online essay and dissertation writing services are luring students into parting with hundreds of pounds each in exchange for bespoke, tailor-made coursework.

A quick search online will reveal a firm called Oxbridge Essays – one of the most popular ghost-writing services available to hundreds of thousands of university students across the country.

The company offers custom-made undergraduate and master’s degree essays for between £100 and £20,000 – all “custom written by academics from leading UK universities” – which is guaranteed to be the standard of a first or a 2:1.

The firm describes itself as the “UK's largest and leading provider of guaranteed Upper 1st, 1st Class and 2:1 essays and dissertations” with all subjects from Airline and Airport Management to Forensic Chemistry catered for.

Students wanting to buy a 10,000 word essay, for example, will be required to hand over around £500.

Oxbridge Essays boasts that its service “provides model examples of academic research that are intended to be used by clients as inspiration for their own work”.

A section on its website asks: “Is it cheating?” to which it responds: “Ordering a model essay or dissertation does not make you a cheat. In fact, it usually shows that you are a hard-working and conscientious student.

“When used correctly, our model essays and dissertations are meant to be 'learning aids' which students use to improve their understanding of their university materials.

“In this sense, our essays are like private tutorials where the tutor shows you exactly how to answer the particular question that you discuss together.

“As long as you use our work in the correct way, you are not cheating by ordering from us.”

Despite the guidelines, an Argus investigation has discovered 1,382 students at the University of Sussex and the University of Brighton have been investigated for cheating - otherwise known as “academic misconduct” – since 2010.

Since the start of the 2011 academic year, the University of Sussex logged a total of 561 cases of academic misconduct. More than 60% of those cases, 351, were for plagiarism.

The figures include the most recent statistics since September last year, where bosses at the Falmer establishment were alerted to 116 individual cases.

Nearly 20% of all plagiarised work at the University of Sussex came from media and film students, followed by 11% from the Informatics department – which includes computer sciences.

Students from law, maths, English, history, sciences, business management and other courses were also caught with plagiarised work.

However, The Argus spoke to one law student who used an online essay writing service and got away with it.

The student told how she paid £250 for a 1,500 word answer.

Wanting to keep her identity anonymous, she said: “With seven vital essays due in a tight deadline it kept me awake at night.

“Whilst I generally enjoyed my legal studies, this was a subject that I had never come to terms with. A strong resistance had set in at the mere mention of that subject. Suffice to say that during lectures I could well have been a visitor from another planet.

“I had no qualms about going online to shop for a prolonged answer.”

Asked whether she felt guilty about cheating, she said: “Such was my urgent need that I didn't feel guilty. I knew I had to be ruthless to be kind to myself. The other six essays had been duly completed and this subject was the only stumbling block to my becoming an honest, qualified woman of the law.

“There were many sellers out there, probably hard-up past and present students. I don't know about the takers as I never discussed my little secret with anyone.”

The student is now a practicing solicitor in Sussex and said she was “relieved” to have got away with buying an essay online but found the whole process “far too easy”.

The University of Sussex says it prevents academic misconduct through “educating students in appropriate academic conduct” and that “all cases must be seriously considered”.

However its policy states that students caught plagiarising work “will not be penalised where a previous occurrence has not taken place”.

Instead, it says, students will be given “feedback and offered the opportunity to attend an academic practice workshop provided the student is not in the final stage of an undergraduate course or the misconduct is not on the dissertation or project of a postgraduate course”.

A spokesman from the university said the number of instances of academic misconduct was decreasing “year on year”.

He said: “In this digital age, when students have access to so many rich sources of information at their fingertips, all universities will from time to time have to handle cases of plagiarism or other academic misconduct.

“Some offences are serious but in many cases students simply fail to adequately reference somebody else’s work.

“The introduction of two simple, additional measures has led to the number of cases of academic misconduct more than halving over the past two years.

“Firstly, we introduced Turnitin - an online ‘text matching’ tool - for all students, giving them the opportunity to check their work and their referencing before they submit it.

“Our examiners and assessors also use Turnitin to check students’ work for plagiarism. We also began offering students workshops in academic practice.

“This proactive and supportive approach is paying off. The number of cases of academic misconduct is falling even as our student population increases.”

Turnitin is believed to cost universities around £8,000 year to run. But when The Argus posed as a student looking to buy an essay from, we were told programmes like Turnitin would not pick up any essays brought from the website as they were “100% original and bespoke”.

At the University of Brighton, a total of 821 students have been involved in cases of academic misconduct since the start of the 2010/2011 academic year.

The way the university recorded the cases differed to the University of Sussex. It did not distinguish which subjects the students were studying but did break down the annual figures by “major” and “minor” cases. It recorded 434 major and 387 minor cases.

Phil Mills, a spokesman for the University of Brighton, said its interpretation of academic misconduct “mainly referred to poor academic practice where the student has incorrectly referenced a source or has forgotten to reference the work altogether”.

He added: “Half of these minor misconduct cases concern students in their first year and we pick up on problems at the earliest opportunity to help them apply the highest standards of academic integrity and to ensure they do not repeat the mistakes.

“All suspicions are taken to a major panel so we can properly find out what happened. Sometimes there is a reasonable explanation such as an apparent collusion between students that was, in fact, a shared project, or there are compelling mitigating circumstances which were undisclosed. Each case is examined thoroughly.”

Mr Mills said that the instances of intentional cheating at the University of Brighton were “very low indeed” and that 99% percent of all students do not experience any problems with “poor academic practice or misconduct”.

He added: “And we make it clear to all students that we deplore the use of essay-writing services and stress that we are vigilant in detecting stylistic differences which may suggest work was not originated by the student.”

Despite the apparent crackdowns on plagiarism and cheating by university chiefs, claimed to have completed more than 440 orders yesterday alone.