University cheating scandal: Education minister gets reassurances New Zealand universities have systems in place to stop contract fraud

According to Auckland University of Technology (AUT), breaches of academic integrity are taken very seriously. Photo / NZME

Universities have scrambled to reassure Education Secretary Chris Hipkins that they have strict systems in place to prevent students from cheating on assignments, despite an African ghostwriter busting up alleged “contract fraud” at major New Zealand institutions.

The academic, known only as “The Kenyan,” claims to have written hundreds of essays for Kiwi students while reportedly working for East China-based academic “essay writing service” Assignment Joy. The Weekend Herald reported on Saturday.

The anonymous whistleblower claims that some New Zealand students graduated without ever writing a single term paper.

Urgent talks are ongoing with the government to pursue Australia’s move to ban fraudulent websites and block them from local access.

Now Education Secretary Hipkins has spoken to the Herald and said he is confident New Zealand universities are doing enough to tackle contract fraud.

“I am assured that universities are aware and have deterrents in place to prevent students from using offshore services in this way to pass assignments,” Hipkins said.

Prevention techniques include software to detect plagiarized content, alerts when students access essay writing services on university networks, multiple assessment formats, consistency checks, and educational programs that warn students about the consequences of cheating, Hipkins said.

“In New Zealand, the Academic Quality Agency and NZQA take these measures into account in the quality assurance of PTEs and Te Pūkenga and Universities respectively. There is also a lot of cooperation with foreign partners in this area,” the minister added.

“We are always open to advice on how we can better strengthen these measures based on best practices.”

The Kenyan claims to have written articles for struggling international students – mostly Chinese – enrolled in New Zealand for as little as US$60 (NZD100) per 1,000 words.

Students who used the scam service are said to have attended leading New Zealand institutions including the University of Auckland, Auckland University of Technology (AUT), Wintec and the New Zealand Tertiary College.

The Herald has seen examples of assignments supposedly written by ghosts that appear to have been graded by tutors.

They cover assignments for students studying education, health sciences, economics, and applied management.

“I’d bet my life that many got their master’s and bachelor’s degrees without ever doing a single assignment,” the whistleblower told the Herald.

“I’ve done a few for undergraduates from freshman through senior year … it’s just a normal occurrence.”

He claims to have written more than 500 papers for students enrolled in New Zealand over the past decade.

Assignment Joy’s website states that its “essay writing services” are available to students in the UK, United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

It boasts that most of its authors are from “local colleges”.

“They know how to write a good term paper and get good grades!” it says.

“We guarantee that all papers are 100% original and delivered on time!”

Universities New Zealand, which campaigns for the country’s eight universities, is in talks with the government about changing the law to criminalize the broadcasting of fraudulent services. It would block national access to 40 fraudulent websites.

Chief Executive Chris Whelan called essay writing services “an unfortunate feature of the modern world.” Some services have been known to blackmail students and threaten to expose their fraud.

“All eight New Zealand universities have a wide range of policies and processes designed to discourage students from using them and impose harsh penalties if use is discovered,” Whelan said.

The University of Auckland defines contract fraud as a form of academic misconduct whereby students have academic papers (coursework, tests or exams) prepared on their behalf, which they then submit as if they had prepared them themselves.

In New Zealand, it is a criminal offense under the New Zealand Education Act (1989) to ‘provide or advertise fraudulent services’.

The most recent Universities New Zealand survey of institutions identified at least 18 fraud deterrence and detection mechanisms, with each university employing at least 11 and some as many as 15.

Mechanisms include software to detect plagiarized content, alerts when students attempt to access essay writing services through university networks, an assessment design that requires academics to use multiple forms of assessment such as essays, tests, and presentations, and encourages staff to post to look for inconsistencies, and education programs that warn students about the consequences of cheating.

Wintec confirmed that earlier this year a business and enterprise student was found using the Assignment Joy platform.

An investigation was initiated which resulted in a zero score on the exam and changed the student’s module result to fail.

“We have clear processes and regulations for criminal offenses such as suspected fraud,” said Dr. Leon Fourie, interim manager of Wintec and Toi Ohomai.

Wintec also offers students an online Academic Integrity module, which includes a special section on plagiarism and has recently become mandatory for its new international learners.

“Fraud or suspected fraud is a concern for any educational institution and can sometimes be difficult to detect and prove,” Fourie added.

“It is vital to ensure that our tutors, centers and students are aware and vigilant of the need to maintain academic integrity and that regular education for all is delivered through our systems.”

AUT said contract fraud is a problem across the tertiary sector and maintains a list of blocked sites that students cannot access on the university network.

“It is not possible to quantify the frequency, but AUT has a university-wide approach to dealing with breaches of academic integrity,” said a spokeswoman.

Alleged violations will be investigated and penalties may be imposed if reasonable findings are made.

“AUT takes breaches of academic integrity seriously and has staff dedicated to educating students and investigating violations,” the spokeswoman added.

“Supporting students with challenges is also part of AUT’s approach to minimizing breaches of academic activity.”

The University of Auckland says it understands contract fraud is a growing problem for it and “the sector as a whole”.

“We see a number of cases each semester of students engaging in contract fraud with such companies,” a university spokeswoman said.

“It is extremely worrying, both for the students – who are then at risk – and for the university.”

For students suspected of academic misconduct, the University of Auckland has robust procedures for investigating allegations of academic misconduct and penalties can be imposed if confirmed, ranging from written warnings, grade reductions, the application of a zero grade for referral to a disciplinary committee can even suspend enrollment in the most serious cases.

The New Zealand Tertiary College (NZTC) said it designs its assessments to incorporate “students’ experience and practice”, thereby reducing opportunities for fraud.

“NZTC maintains rigorous and robust systems to ensure the authenticity of our students’ submitted work through the use of plagiarism checks when students submit reviews,” said a spokeswoman.

“NZTC extensively investigates and takes appropriate action on any fraud that comes to our attention through the review submission software or otherwise. There are a range of penalties for cheating, including failing the course and being removed from the NZTC.”

It is also constantly updating its systems to keep up with evolving technology and recently launched software that helps detect contract fraud.

The New Zealand Qualifications Authority (NZQA) confirmed to the Herald that it is aware of Assignment Joy and its marketing to New Zealand students.

“From individuals engaging in contract fraud to the paper mills providing the opportunity for fraud, there is a knock-on effect to the wider community and society,” said Eve McMahon, NZQA associate director of quality assurance.

And while NZQA says the primary responsibility for ensuring academic integrity lies with tertiary providers, internet service providers could also play a role in shutting down sites identified as paper mills.

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