Sting busts more ghost-writers

The Sunday Star-Times has found numerous organisations offering to ghost-write assignments since unmasking an Auckland business illegally selling university essays.

Police and New Zealand Qualifications Authority (NZQA) inquiries are under way into a central Auckland business called Assignment4U after revelations it was using a network of tutors here and abroad to write original essays for Chinese-speaking students attending New Zealand tertiary institutions.

The NZQA last week said it was unable to conduct such stings itself because it would be entrapment. Yet with little effort, we were able to find dozens of advertisements on the Chinese-language website.

We contacted five of those organisations, some of which had contact details, including a New Zealand cellphone number, and within 24 hours had received three quotes for supplying a 1500-word original essay for $200 and $285 and A$220 ($265). One of the organisations even emailed a form in which a would-be cheating student could specify the assignment's subject, word count and due date, as well as their login to the university website and, naturally, payment details.

Under a 2011 amendment to the Education Act, those advertising or providing academic cheating services can be fined up to $10,000.

On Friday, NZQA and Universities New Zealand, the two bodies responsible for quality assurance in the tertiary education sector, announced a joint working party on "academic cheating services" in response to the allegations against Assignment4U. The working party will look at the extent and impact of the services, as well as preventative methods.

Tertiary Education Minister Steven Joyce said a "co-ordinated approach" has been missing in NZQA and the universities' responses to allegations of cheating.

But calls for NZQA to be able to conduct undercover investigations should be treated with caution.

"They're not a police or intelligence agency. If you're going to seek those powers for a quality assurance agency, people would say it would exceed the brief."

He said, where necessary, NZQA already worked with police and Immigration Services.

NZQA said it was still gathering evidence in relation to Assignment4U. It said translations of Assignment4U and SkyKiwi websites had not provided anything that would appear to incriminate the organisations operating the websites.

It said overt offers of cheating appeared to be offered only on international websites and that "most New Zealand sites offer support and tutorial-type services".

The statement added that education institutions had mechanisms to counter such cheating, including spotting students whose submitted work appeared inconsistent with previous assignments, or with a tutor's perceptions of the student's general abilities.

Last weekend the Star-Times revealed that three months ago a former "ghost writer" had sent letters alleging cheating dating to 2007 to bodies including Auckland University, Auckland University of Technology (AUT), Unitec, Massey University and the police, but had heard nothing back.

NZQA said it had received the letter but had not had sufficient evidence to take action.

Later in the week, Joyce revealed that Assignment4U had been investigated by NZQA in 2009 but had been deemed to be a legitimate tutoring website.

In the last weekend's sting, we used the name of a fictitious Chinese student to order an essay from Assignment4U, which is run from a unit in Central Auckland.

The 1500-word essay was for a first-year communications paper at Canterbury University. The site charged $270 for the essay. Canterbury University media and communications lecturer Donald Matheson marked it for us - a B+.

The revelation of the cheating service could have serious repercussions for the international education sector, which earns about $750 million a year.

On Friday, Assignment4U's central Auckland premises appeared closed.

Sunday Star Times