University of Wollongong students have been embroiled in a widespread cheating scandal, paying nearly $5000 to outsource their assignments to an online essay writing service.
According to receipts and orders uncovered by Fairfax Media, 26 requests were made this year from UOW students to the MyMaster.com website.
MyMaster Group Pty Ltd targeted international students with its website and advertisements written in Chinese.
At UOW, the vast majority of requests for assignments were made for subjects within the Faculty of Business such as economics, commerce and finance.
UOW refused requests for an interview on Wednesday but issued a statement from Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Education Eeva Leinonen recognising the digital age provided more opportunities for cheating.
The statement said the university was concerned and disappointed by reports of students paying for essays and planned to investigate alleged offences.
UOW was unable to reveal figures of disciplinary actions taken against students for cheating and plagiarism.
Former UOW Commerce Society president Leland Yeo said advertisements for essay-writing services had appeared on the society's Facebook group and the university may have been aware of such services.
"We always took them down and banned people ASAP and usually forwarded a screen shot to the faculty of business," he said.
"One time the faculty messaged us, asking us to take one down."
Wollongong Undergraduate Student Association secretary Peter Munford said students buying essays created an unfair system.
"It's unfair to pay your way to a degree, university is about independent thought and paying for essays defeats the purpose," he said.
"They're actually doing a disservice to themselves, using paid sources might get you into a job but it won't necessarily keep you a job."
Mr Munford however did empathise with those resorting to the service, admitting that international students in particular were under pressure to pass.
"Some students have degrees funded by their home government or university and if they don't perform to a standard they have to return home without their degree."
According to the statement, UOW uses text-matching software that compares a student's assignment to databases of publications and past essays.
Language barriers pose problems
The University of Wollongong plans to minimise cheating, in the wake of the latest scandal, by setting particular types of assignments.
‘‘We are actively seeking to set assessments that are not easily plagiarised or indeed purchased, which include group work-based staggered tasks as well as assessments including oral presentations,’’ a UOW statement said.
But according to a 22-year-old UOW engineering student, this won’t be enough.
The student, who declined to be named, claimed that oral exams and group work assignments obstructed students with limited English doing their fair share of work.
‘‘There’s a huge language barrier involved, especially with things like speeches that sometimes make it almost impossible,’’ he said.
‘‘More than one time I’ve had to write speeches and presentations for international students because they didn’t have the language skills.’’
The student stressed that was because of language barriers rather than students avoiding doing assessments.
‘‘It’s nothing to do with laziness, they’re just too timid to work in groups at present and unfortunately other students end up carrying them in assignments.’’
Whistleblowing academics have accused their universities of contributing to systemic cheating by welcoming international students who are ‘‘functionally illiterate’’ because they rely so heavily on their fees.
Some academics claim they have urged their university leaders to raise the English proficiency requirements but the concerns have been ignored because they are at odds with financial imperatives.
International education contributes $15 billion annually to the Australian economy.
At some universities, international students account for more than 30 per cent of revenue.
On Wednesday, Fairfax Media exposed an online business called MyMaster, run out of Sydney’s Chinatown, that had provided more than 900 assignments to students from almost every university in NSW, turning over at least $160,000 this year.
The website has since been taken down and Yingying Dou, the sole director of MyMaster, did not turn up to work on Wednesday.
Following the MyMaster revelations, scores of similar websites have come to light, revealing a burgeoning online black market.
More than 20 disgruntled academics contacted Fairfax Media expressing frustration at the widespread problem they say has been undermining the integrity of their institutions.
Dr McComas Taylor, the head of the Australian National University’s South Asian Program, said universities were ‘‘very reluctant to do anything to upset this revenue stream’’.
While a spokesman for Education Minister Christopher Pyne said there would be ‘‘very severe consequences’’ for those caught cheating, the federal government encouraged more international students to study in Australia.
Almost every university approached by Fairfax Media denied requests for interviews on Wednesday but insisted the problem was confined to a very small number of students and there were systems in place to catch offenders.
Only one — the University of Wollongong – asked Fairfax Media to provide the data that would help them investigate the offending students.
- AMY McNEILAGE and LISA VISENTIN