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Pens for Hire: how students cheat, and how they get away with it

For a few thousand dollars, university students can pay someone to sit an exam for them, or complete an entire subject. The Feed investigates what makes a student cheat – and how they get away with it.“You pay the deposit first, and transfer half of money to me before the exam. When I get out of the exam room, you pay me the rest.”

By Elise Potaka & Cecily Huang

“Jack” has been advertising online since 2012. He specialises in finance and accounting, and has 3 years’ experience as an “exam impersonator” at some of the country’s top universities. For $3500 he’ll outsource his brain to you and sit your exam. For $5000-6000, he says he can do an entire subject – from start to finish.

pens for hire

“Jack” doesn’t have a monopoly, there are other pens for hire doing exactly the same thing. “Shu Zhi” guarantees a distinction “or above” and can do everything from basic statistics to corporate law.

Their client base includes people like a Deakin University student who says he failed most of his subjects in his first year, and then decided it was better to pay someone else to do them for him.

Australia’s universities have, in the past year, been rocked by allegations of cheating. We began our investigation off the back of a surprisingly frank report by the academic misconduct taskforce at the University of Sydney. It acknowledged that there is “clear, and clearly significant, underreporting and underdetection at the university”, and that there isn’t consistent vigilance across faculties and schools.

Searching online, we found that ghostwriting services are being targeted at students from all backgrounds, in a range of languages. Then there were those offering to sit exams on behalf of students, a practice that was mentioned in the University of Sydney report, and has been reported in other parts of the world, including China. Our searches in Chinese confirmed that there is an industry here in Australia. We found posts by students actively searching for people to take certain exams, often with quite specific details, including the name of the university and subject, and whether they’re looking for a male or female to sit for them.

Undercover reporting

Cecily Huang’s undercover reporting

With Cecily posing as a student, we were able to meet with “Jack”. He told us he has sat exams for others at a range of higher education institutes, including some Group of 8 universities. He explained that it’s as simple as making a fake student card, swapping the student photo with his own. With hundreds of students in an exam room, it was unlikely that any of the other students would recognise him as an imposter, he said.

We checked with students and the universities about exam room procedures, and found that it was usually a simple visual check to ensure the photo on the student card matched the “student” in the exam room.

“The university has never come to me to talk to me about it or given me any trouble”

But what makes a student cheat? We set out to meet with a young man, an international student, at Deakin University in Melbourne who was posting online looking for people to sit his exams. He arrived in a BMW. He told us he never goes to class, and pays for all his assignments and exams to be done for him. He said that when he first started university, he’d done the exams himself and failed most of his subjects. “The university has never come to me to talk to me about it or given me any trouble,” he said. He now plans to continue and study a Masters degree.

But it’s not just international students – our investigation oncovered local students involved in cheating. “I guess I was having a lot of fun that semester and didn’t put in the hard work I should have”, one local student who’d bought assignments online told us. “I never felt afraid to do it because it’s something the university never spoke about, so you could see it’s not something on their radar.”

The University of Sydney report stated that while detection measures and exam room checks need to be improved, education and culture are just as important.

Read the responses from the universities named here.

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