Chinese cheats rort NZ universities with fakes

ESSAYS TO ORDER: Pengju Chen initially denied being in charge.
ESSAYS TO ORDER: Pengju Chen initially denied being in charge.

An investigation has uncovered a well-organised commercial cheating service for Chinese-speaking students in New Zealand.

» Read the essay Fairfax bought

The long-standing business uses a network of tutors, some outside New Zealand, to write original assignments ordered by Chinese-speaking students attending New Zealand universities, polytechnics and private institutions.

The tutors are paid by assignment and have specialist subjects.

The assignments go up to masters level but the service claims to have tutors up to doctorate level.

Tertiary Education Minister Steven Joyce last night said the police and the New Zealand Qualifications Authority (NZQA) were launching an inquiry into the service following the investigation.

Joyce said the NZQA was anonymously tipped off three months ago and took action to inform universities and polytechs, but failed to tell him.

He said it was now an "open question" whether NZQA's response had been adequate, and chief executive Karen Poutasi was conducting an internal investigation.

The revelation of the cheating service has serious repercussions for the New Zealand international education sector, which earns about $750 million a year from about 93,000 students. China is New Zealand's biggest education market, last year accounting for 27 per cent of this country's international students.

The Sunday Star-Times, using the name of a fictitious Chinese student, successfully ordered an essay for a first-year university course subject from the company, which markets itself under a Chinese-language website called Assignment4U and is run from a unit at 88 Cook St, Central Auckland.

The signage in the office says Ateama Ltd in large, bold letters. The company also offers tutoring, counselling, help and academic "solutions" for overseas students.

A ghost writer, who wrote assignments for Assignment4U in 2007, told the Star-Times about completing assignments for students who were enrolled at Auckland University, Massey University, Auckland University of Technology and AIS St Helens (a private tertiary education provider).

He said he was coming forward now because he wanted to do "the right thing".

Pengju Chen, who is listed as a director of Ateama in Company Office records, initially denied being in charge of the operation when approached in the Assignment4U office on Friday.

He then agreed he was the director of the company and said the business did not help Chinese-speaking students to cheat.

The company provided only face-to-face tutoring and counselling. It supplied students with "examples" or "solutions" on academic assignment questions but made it clear the student could "not hand it in" because the company retained copyright. The examples helped with ideas and structure, he said.

No such warning was provided to the fictitious student used by the Star-Times and the company provided its "solution" just three hours before the indicated deadline.

About 24,500 students from China were enrolled in New Zealand institutions last year; about 10,500 at universities or polytechnics.

Although it's impossible to say how many students have paid Assignment4U for academic assignments, the service has been available for at least five years and hundreds, if not thousands, of students may have used it.

A large network of ghost writers both in New Zealand and overseas has also assisted in what could be one of the largest examples of cheating to hit the New Zealand international education system.

Most education institutions have introduced systems to detect plagiarism but it is still very difficult to check if an assignment is the student's work.

The ghost writer, who asked not to be named and now works overseas, believes universities and polytechnics must have turned a blind eye to the cheating.

He said staff should have been alerted when students with poor English produced competent and grammatically correct essays.

"It would take a colossal amount of looking the other way by the complete legion of tutors, lecturers, course facilitators and teaching assistants to let pass such well-constructed essays and such exquisitely prepared assessments submitted by those whose written and spoken English skills are far from polished."

Safeguards such as plagiarism buster did not detect a well-prepared, well-researched, ghost-written, electronic-based assignment, he said.

"New Zealand, of all the Western nations, is now widely known in the Chinese community as the easiest way to get a bachelor's or master's degree," he said.

In February he sent a letter with his concerns and evidence to a number of New Zealand universities including Auckland University, Auckland University of Technology (AUT), Unitec, Massey University and the police but had heard nothing back.

Last night, both Massey and Auckland universities said they were not aware of having received tip-offs. However, Joyce said NZQA had received some "information" anonymously three months ago, but had not informed him about it till last week.

Joyce said NZQA had informed the umbrella group Universities New Zealand at the time, and the chair of a polytechnic advisory group, but "it is an open question as to whether they followed it up hard enough".

The 1500-word essay commissioned by the Star-Times was for a first-year communications paper at Canterbury University and cost $270. It was delivered by email only hours before it was due.

Just days before the deadline, Assignment4U asked for lecture notes and the student's login number at Canterbury University so it could check lecture notes.

The fictitious student requested an essay of B or B- grade and when we had it marked by Canterbury University media and communications lecturer Donald Matheson, he gave it a B+.

"This is a workmanlike essay which shows that the writer understands news values and can apply the ideas to an example," Matheson said.

"Because of the mastery of essay-writing and the effort that's gone into using the academic readings, this would probably get a B+, which is a bit sobering. I'd not have picked this as cheating, other than a sense it was a bit weird that the student was so good at writing but didn't use those skills to really say anything."

Chen appears to have been involved with the business since at least 2007 when a standard agreement for so-called tutors mentions his name as the office manager of Assignment4U.

From 2003 to 2008, Assignment4U Consultant Ltd was a registered company directed and owned by Steven Quan Li, who works from the same apartment block as Chen. Chen and Li own, either personally or through companies, five apartments in the building. The shares in Ateama are owned by Xiaohu Ren who, according to company records, also lives at 88 Cook St.

Joyce said the Government had amended the Education Act in 2011 to make it an offence to advertise or provide cheating services.

The amendment hasn't yet led to a prosecution, but Joyce said police and NZQA would now "work together to ascertain the veracity of the issues and then work together with the appropriate agencies for a prosecution if that was required".

Joyce said New Zealand took its reputation as a provider of tertiary training for international students "very seriously".


Massey University spokesman James Gardiner said he wasn't aware of any recent correspondence alerting the institution to Assignment4U's activities, but "we take this sort of thing very seriously and would like to hear from this person again".

He said the university had rigorous procedures in place to identify cheats, and uncover some every year, including exam cheats and plagiarists.

He said that assignments were just one of a range of assessment processes, including exams.

"It's not possible to get a qualification from Massey simply by handing in other people's assignments. There are multiple outputs expected from students, including exams."

Gardiner rejected the idea that the university might feel under pressure to enrol international students even if their language skills were not up to completing a degree taught in English.

He said it was not in the university's interest to allow students to start a degree they couldn't complete, and "if anything, there is more rigour applied to international students".

A spokesperson for Auckland University said yesterday was the first time the university had heard of the alleged cheating, and it would need to know more details so "we can look into it".

Sunday Star Times