By Joyce Fung
Posted 32 minutes agoSun 1 Dec 2019, 2:43am
In a toilet stall at Monash University, I see advertisements in Chinese for essay writing services plastered across the door.
- Most agencies claim a 100 per cent pass rate with zero risk of being found out
- Some contract cheating agencies charge more for higher-quality essays
- New laws are being drafted to target contract cheating in Australia
Every time I go on Chinese social media there they are again. International students with poor English can pay to have all their essays completed for them by ghostwriters.
Two-and-a-half years ago, I came to Melbourne from Shanghai in China to start a master’s degree in journalism because standards here are said to be very high. I expected to find a fair and honest academic environment.
But what I found when I arrived in Australia was a thriving contract cheating industry.
The proliferation of advertisements on the Chinese social media app WeChat suggests scammers are increasingly targeting Chinese students, the biggest international student group in Australia.
Universities around the world compete for a slice of the education market. Indeed, international student fees contributed 23.3 per cent to Australian universities’ revenue in 2017.
The ease with which students and the ghostwriters they employ can get away withcheatingthreatens to undercut the very reason I came here.
Finding the ghost
Search ‘Australian universities ghostwriting’ in Chinese and up come websites for large service providers. At least 34 of them are accessible on Google. And they all promise to take the drudgery out of study by completing assessments for the student — for a fee.
One of the biggest agencies, Meeloun Education, claimsthat their 450-pluswriters (53 per centwith master’s degrees outside China) completed more than 30,000 assignments between 2009 and 2018.
Another agency claims that among its 200 writers, there are tutors from top Australian universities.
Yet another says it can handle assignments for at least 97 majorsat different universities including Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide and Monash.
Most agencies claim they can achieve a 100 per cent pass rate with zero risk of being found out. Several of them share the same contact details on their websites.
On several Chinese recruitment websites, Meeloun says it’s looking for “English writers” and offers 200 yuan (about $40) per essay. No experience of studying abroad is required.
The agency charges 600 yuan (about $120) for 1,000 words — based on those figures, it’s reasonable to estimate that it receives a 67 per cent agent commission. So hiring and managing staff is money for jam.
Xu, who did not want to disclose her first name, is doing her undergraduate degree in China and she makes money by writing assignments for Chinese undergraduate students in American universities.
She’s never met anyone from the agency that employs her, whichshe thinks is “probably” based in China.
“I don’t know where the writers are based as I have almost no chance to talk to other writers.”
“I only know that my handler might be in China because of his photos on WeChat.
“Everything is discussed on WeChat,” she said.
Her handler offered her a full-time job to write more essays, but her title would be “legal staff” in the company.
On Meeloun Education’s official WeChat account the agency is registered as Gaoxin District Meilun Education Consulting Service Department. And according to the Chinese National Enterprise Credit Information Publicity System, the agency is a legal subsidiary enterprise registered for education consulting services — one that has no record of administrative penalties or abnormal operations.
In other words, the international contract cheating agency is legal and clean.
The ABC contacted Meeloun Education for comment, but they did not respond by publication time.
A lucrative industry lacking transparency
In China, we say “the water is deep” when a lack of transparency means there’s no oversight of an industry.
Forme, the water is indeed deep in this industry, because apart from the international agencies, many contract cheating providers operate secretly. Many of them are international students from China.
With no brands, nor websites, they reach the Chinese students mostly through WeChat. Some are shared among students by word of mouth.
I met David, a Chinese contract cheating provider and a university graduate in Melbourne. He did not wish his full name to be used.
“My work has never been suspected by the universities,” he told me when we met at the university where he studied.
As a solo ghostwriter, David does not belong to an agency but rather deals directly with clients who are mainly Chinese students from business-related majors at Monash University and RMIT University.
According toDavid, the current market price for an assignment designed to achieve a pass mark (50–59/100) is about $200 per 1,000 words. The price might increase depending on the urgencyand the assignment requirements.
David estimates he’s earned at least $8,000 by writing some 20 assignments. He seldom advertises. Students find him by word of mouth.
When I asked him if he ever felt guilty taking money to write essays that students then pass off as their own, he said “sometimes”.
“But then I realise someone will do it even if I don’t do it,” he added.
“And I can acquire knowledge when doing it.”
David introduced me to Kelvin,who is a university student. But unlike David, Kelvin led a collective of four to five Chinese students who served students from information technology, architecture, finance, and business majors at RMIT University, Holmes Institute, Victoria University and Charles Sturt University.
Kelvin agreed to talk to me over the phone but did not agree to have his full name disclosed.
He said during the exam period, his team usually had 20 to 30 orders, and he once earned $2,800 in a single month by writing10assignments.
“I can write a 2,000-word assignment in two days and ensure it can reach at least credit (60–69/100),” he said.
Like David and Kelvin, many freelancers lurk in the “deep water”.
Kelvin told me many contract cheating services promoted on WeChat were disguised as assignment help or tutoring services.
“Needless to say,” he said, “they are all ghostwriters.”
Students don’t think they’ll get caught
Although many Australian universities use Turnitin, an internet-based service, to detect plagiarism, it cannot detect contract cheated assignments if the writer doesn’t plagiarise.
So, the system is enabling students to take a calculated risk.
Ai is doing a bachelor’s degree in Melbourne. She’s from China and attributes her decision to cheat partly to an inadequacy with written English, but mostly to “laziness”.
She told me that so far, she’s used the service four times at a cost of $700 and she’s never been suspected of fraud. Ai did not want her full name disclosed.
“The university students that I am acquainted with … almost all of them have used contract cheating services once or more and haven’t been caught,” she said.
“This becomes a culture of international students.”
Liao, a Chinese master’s student who has graduated from the sameuniversity, estimated about half of the students in her major had used the service. As for the university students she was acquainted with, it was 80 to 90 per cent.
Like Ai and Liao, the other students using the service with whom I’ve spoken know the consequences of being detected, butbelieve that the risk of being caught was low.
Their only concern was that either the ghostwriter might be not good enough, or too good.
“I wouldn’t choose those agencies with native English writers,” Ai said, “because they write too good.”
David and Kelvin told me that most of their clients wanted to get a pass (50–59/100) or a credit (60–69/100).
David said some clients would even ask him to reduce his English writing level when he was writing their assignments so that it looks more realistic.
“They know their abilities don’t deserve a D (distinction) or an HD (high distinction), and they believe their tutor feel the same as well,” he said.
David and Kelvin will refund half the fee if the assignment is failed. That rarelyhappens. Some service providers guarantee a full refund to attract customers.
“Our clients have never been found contract cheating, except once,” Kelvin said. That time his client “didn’t even read the assignment before submitting and gave himself away while the tutor was talking to him about histopic,” he said.
The student failed that assignment but didn’t expose Kelvin, because the tutor didn’t question further, he said.
An unfair game
The relationship between the student and the writer is paradoxical. The student needs to trust the ghostwriter will provide the goods at the right level and the ghostwriter must be able to trust the student will not give him or her away.
So how do they build mutual trust where there is no contract at all?
“The service provider takes control,” David said.
“We hold the information of the students.”
Ghostwriters insist on having the student’s name, ID number, and the password of the learning management system so that they can access the university assessment requirements, unit resources and lecture slides.
“We receive full payment before results are released,” David said.
Ai agreed she wouldn’t dare expose the writers, even if her contract-cheated assignments were failed.
“I will also die miserably … if I report to the school,” she joked.
Catching the ghosts
Liao was happy getting 78/100, a distinction, for a 3,000-word assignment. She’d spent $300 for the service and only asked for a pass.
Liao said she didn’t think her tutors would find out about the cheating.
Indeed,a tutor in a business-related major at Monash University who didn’t want to disclose hername, said she was more focused on identifying plagiarism than contract cheating when she was marking.
She said it was difficult to tell if the student wrote the paper based on their writing style if there were no previous assignments to compare it to.
So, is it possible to catch the ghost?
Earlier this year, Turnitin released a tool called Authorship Investigate to help educators in universities investigate suspicions of contract cheating by detecting students’ writing styles.
Associate Professor Phillip Dawson, of Deakin University, trialled an early version of it.
His research showed markers were able to accurately identify three out of five cases of contract cheating using the technology.
He told me that while Turnitin identifies many cases of contract cheating, markers need to make the final decision themselves.
And while the students and service providers I spoke to were Chinese, Mr Dawson said there was no research showing Chinese students in Australian universities were more or less likely tocheat than any other nationality.
After hearing about this new technology, David said some of his friends who studied at Deakin University suggested they might have to find the same writer throughout their university degree.
Deakin’s deputy vice-chancellor for education, Liz Johnson, said it was “disappointing to hear that students could be tempted to cheat” and the university “actively investigates any potential breaches and reports”.
“The reality is, no university is immune from the prospect of academic misconduct by its students, whether its students are supported by another party or not,” Professor Johnson said.
“Contract cheating sites often prey on vulnerable students so it is important to alert students to the legitimate academic help available.
“We work collaboratively with our student associations to dispel myths about contract cheating, including the incorrect idea that it is not detectable.”
New laws to crack down on contract cheating
In April, Education Minister Dan Tehan announced the department was drafting new laws to target contract cheating and providers would face up to two years imprisonment or a fine of up to $210,000.
“It would have made it a criminal offence for a parent to offer to do their child’s reference list,” Professor Dawson said.
“The maximum penalty is the same as aggravated assault with a weapon … just way too big for non-commercial contract cheating.”
Anne-Marie Lansdown, the deputy chief executive of Universities Australia, said the bodywas helping to refine that legislation to be scoped to target commercial contract cheating services.
She said it was more of a deterrent to these services, and also sent the message to students that “cheating is unacceptable and will be dealt with very seriously”.
Professor Dawson agreed there was no single solution to the issue. It needed a combination of approaches including detecting technologies andeducative work.
Partnership with student unions was also necessary to build a culture of integrity, he added.
A Monash University spokesperson said the university “upholds a rigorous standard of academic integrity for all students”, and made it clear that cheating might lead to exclusion from the university.
To my surprise, David and Kelvin both welcomed a better academic environment.
David told me he knew contract cheating was wrong, but said he also “felt at ease and justified because everyone else is dishonest.” He would love to be cleaner, he said, if the environment was cleaner.
“I don’t feel right about what I’m doing,” David said.
“But I need the money … because the tuition fees and living expenses are too high.”
On the upside Kelvin doesn’t hire ghostwriters to do his own assignments. And he wants to find a proper job after graduation “to stop dancing on the edge of the law”.
“I’m considering offering tutoring courses to help Chinese students to pass the units,” he said.
Joyce Fung worked with Australian Story‘s Belinda Hawkins on this story.