Ask any student and they’ll tell you that getting through university is not easy. It’s not as simple as staying on top of your workload. With this stage of life comes new responsibilities and the stress of learning how to cope in a different environment.
It’s already as difficult as it is, but for the thousands of international students, this also means dealing with the stress of adapting to a new country, learning in a foreign language and being apart from their family.
It’s no wonder that some of them try to pay people to do their assignments for them.
“Before I even came to Australia, I joined some student groups on WeChat, and they had a lot of advertisements on having someone write your essays for you. I knew about it, but didn’t dare try it out,” said Wang*, who’s doing his Bachelor of Commerce at Deakin University.
That was until one stressful trimester, when the 21-year-old, overwhelmed by the seemingly unending assignments, decided that he couldn’t handle it anymore.
“I paid someone to do my essays for me because I was frustrated. I didn’t know how to do it. I didn’t understand the assignments. I felt like I didn’t have enough time,” said Wang.
Since then, he has tried out various other providers, all found through WeChat. He’s careful as he knows that he might be caught.
“I don’t delude myself. I know it is a form of cheating. But what can I do? Compared to the amount of fees I have to pay, this is so much more viable,” said Wang. “I don’t want to fail and then have to pay to do a unit again. It costs a lot of money. I don’t want to disappoint my parents.”
Vanessa Chan, 22, an international student who’s doing her Bachelor of Communication (Journalism) at Deakin University, disapproves of contract cheating.
“I understand why they do it but I wouldn’t do it. One of my friends paid someone to do his assignment but he only scored 5 out of 100 marks. They didn’t even bother refunding him so I think it was fake. Most of them are international students and they are embarrassing all of us,” said Vanessa.
The ones behind it
Getting someone to write your essay for you isn’t as difficult as it seems. An unassuming tweet or desperate insta-story is all it takes for these online services to offer their help. Some even get offers directly sent to their student emails.
It isn’t always this impersonal. Rahim*, 23, from Singapore, can testify to it. He was first exposed to contract cheating when his friend asked him for help.
“He was panicking because he had four assignments due on the same week and he wanted to ace them all. He said he would pay me and offered $150 for a 750-word essay. It wasn’t that difficult and I thought it would be dumb for me to not do it,” said Rahim.
That was a year ago and the Melbourne university student has had a steady stream of “customers”, all introduced by his friend and through them, their friends.
“I only do the easier ones,” he revealed. “I don’t think I can handle heavier ones because I have my own assignments too. I manage my own studies pretty well so I see this as a great source of extra pocket money. Maybe after I graduate I could take up more customers.”
Tackling the problem
In 2016, 13 students who were expelled from Deakin University for contract cheating made national news. Three years on, despite the risk of exclusion, suspension, failing a unit or fines, it seems not to have deterred students at all.
“Students cheat for a variety of reasons. They might run out of time; they might not feel confident in doing the work themselves; they might be trying to gain an advantage over their peers; or they may misunderstand the expectations of academic integrity,” said Philip Dawson, Associate Professor at Deakin University’s Centre for Research in Assessment and Digital Learning.
Prof Dawson has conducted extensive research on contract cheating and acknowledges that it could be difficult for markers to detect contract cheating.
However, it is not impossible.
In one of his studies, he found that it was easier for markers to detect wrongdoing when they were specifically told to look out for it. He, along with fellow Associate Professor Wendy Sutherland-Smith, is also engaged in a collaborative research with Turnitin involving a software primed to detect contract cheating.
When hiring someone to write their essays, students also run the risk of being blackmailed or cheated of their money. And they can’t report it to anyone either, as what they are doing is unethical and illegal.
“The sites don’t provide a fantastic product, and most were not of a passable standard. Some sites just took the money and didn’t even provide an assignment,” Dawson said of his experience when hiring essay writers for his research.
He understands that there’s no “silver bullet” to the problem. Lots of research is being done to help improve academic integrity, but it is unrealistic to expect the problem to go away anytime soon.
Ultimately, he wants students to understand this: “Assessment isn’t just about putting in effort; it’s also about showing you have met particular learning outcomes. When students contract cheat they might put effort in, but they certainly haven’t demonstrated the intended learning outcomes.”
* Names have been changed on request.