In China, says Camellia Yang, cheating is the "dark side" of the university system, but she had hoped things were different in New Zealand.
Yang should know. She's a graduate of the Shandong University of Finance and Economy in Jinan, China, which has around 30,000 students, and like most people she knew there, she cheated in her exams, mainly by filling up her mobile phone with answers. Another ploy she'd seen used was to hire a stand-in: "It happens a lot in Chinese university - you find a person with good marks and ask them to take the exam for you".
She didn't like bending the rules, but if you didn't cheat you'd get left behind by all the other cheats. She estimates at least 50 per cent of students cheated, teachers often knew, and the penalties if caught were negligible.
But three years ago Yang came to study in New Zealand. She completed a Bachelor of Arts and a postgraduate diploma at Auckland's Unitec, before finding work at an Auckland communications company.
In this country, in an education system where cheating is more condemned than condoned, she and her friends from Shandong were happy to follow the rules, working hard to complete degrees in a language in which they were not fluent. They never cheated.
Yang was always aware, though, that other international students - especially the wealthiest ones - were happy to spend money to get results, rather than put in the hard work, something she strongly resented.
"When people asked me to do essays for them I got angry. It's not fair on the people who just attend the class and study very hard to get the marks."
All the same, when Yang last week read the Sunday Star-Times exposé of a commercial cheating service Assignment4U, which sells ghost-written tertiary assignments to order, she was shocked.
"I didn't realise there was a business to do it - and they charge a lot!"
Yang said Weibo sites - the Chinese equivalent of Twitter - were full of comments from appalled Chinese students living in New Zealand.
"People are very angry, because they know cheating in exams in China is common, but here the international students should follow the rules of New Zealand. We didn't expect that [commercial] cheating to be here."
Yang finds it frustrating that organisations such as Assignment4U may lead New Zealanders to assume all Chinese students here are cheating.
"It's very frustrating. People think I may be one of them and I'm not. I'm proud to be Chinese, but this happens a lot."
Last week, as the Qualifications Authority (NZQA) and police began a joint investigation into Assignment4U, the Sunday Star-Times took just an hour to track down two more organisations, each with New Zealand cellphone numbers, offering bespoke essay-writing services. One offered to provide a 1500-word "sample" essay for $200. Both were advertised on forums on the local Chinese-language website skykiwi.com.
Yang says that in Chinese culture people are told to be honest and moral, but that sometimes breaks down around the education system.
"There's a lot of competition in China. People are under a lot of pressure to get a good degree."
There is also the principle of "guanxi" - the network of social influence and relationships that underpins Chinese business and politics.
Yang says it is common to spend money on building guanxi relationships. "It's a grey line between corruption and the relationship."
There is little information available in New Zealand about the ethnic breakdown of students caught cheating. In 2007, the Press newspaper claimed that students cheating in New Zealand universities were disproportionately likely to be international students from China, citing anecdotal claims from mainly anonymous sources.
Accused of being inflammatory and racist, the newspaper requested an ethnic breakdown of cheating data from a number of universities under the Official Information Act. Canterbury, Otago, Victoria and Auckland universities refused to supply the information, but Waikato University reported 143 of a total 222 cases of proven academic misconduct there in 2006 were by Chinese students.
However, a researcher who has published an academic study of attitudes to plagiarism amongst Australian tertiary students says it's far to simplistic to say that academic cheating is a specifically Chinese, or even international-student, problem.
University of West Sydney psychology lecturer Dr Lucia Vardanega co-authored a 2008 study comparing attitudes of local and international students in Australia toward copying someone else's work.
"I'd be hesitant to say it's specially an Eastern Asian problem," said Vardanega. "There are many forms of cheating. In the more European context, some of our local students do more cheating along the lines of copying other students' work, or resubmitting rehashed assignments of their own."
Vardenega said that in many Asian countries the education system emphasises memorising texts. "That blurs the boundaries, because if you've memorised a text it's a bit hard to draw the line between your work and what you've memorised."
She said while cheating was a problem with students from all cultures, there were differences in motivation between Australia-raised and international students. Where the Australian students might just be lazy, international students were often under tremendous pressure to succeed. She said she knew of Indian families who had gone into enormous debt to send their children to an Australian university. "You couldn't afford to be seen as coming to Australia and failing, because that meant letting down your family."
Vardenega said research showed that educating students about what exactly constituted cheating, and the consequences if caught, "does significantly reduce the incidence", as does the use of anti-plagiarism software such as turnitin.com.
Concern about the levels of cheating by international students has been on the rise around the world. A study in the late 1990s at the University of Southern California found that international students made up 10 per cent of the student body but were involved in 47 per cent of known cases of academic dishonesty.
In 2010, the Beijing-based consultancy Zinch interviewed 250 high school students in China who were applying for entrance to American universities, and estimated that 90 per cent of application letters were fakes, 70 per cent of essays were not written by the applicant, and 50 per cent of high school transcripts were falsified.
The author of the Zinch study recommended that US schools respond to the problem by conducting face-to-face interviews of all applicants, conduct "spot-tests" of English-language skills and hire their own staff in China to root out fraud.
Yang has a rather more blunt suggestion for dealing with cheats in New Zealand. Refunding course fees wouldn't bother the wealthiest students, "because they don't care about money". Making them leave the school isn't enough, "as they'll find another school". The best solution, says Yang, would be to deport the worst offenders.
- © Fairfax NZ News