The Fairfax newspaper investigation that exposed a business set up to ghost-write academic assignments for international students has attracted many comments about cheating at universities.
The investigation reported that this business, which has a team of ghost-writers, produced 900 assignments in 2014, making a total of $160,000.
For anyone who has studied or worked at a university, this is not news. Ghost-writing, whether organised as a business or done on an individual basis, has been happening for many years—probably forever.
We have all seen ads posted on university campuses offering help with assignments. And we have all had our suspicions that essays might not have been written by the students we know from our weekly tutorials.
But no more than a small percentage of students cheat this way. Many international students work hard, and it is unfair to target them or paint them with a broad brush.
Making money out of writing essays is just the flip side of a corporate education system that is more concerned with money than it is with real learning.
But what about the students who pay to have their essays written for them? After all, had they not demanded the service, this business would not have existed. What has driven them to do this?
Universities have become increasingly reliant on international students for revenue. Overseas students make up more than 20 per cent of university enrolments, and contributed $15 billion to the economy in 2013. Education is Australia’s largest service export.
Continual government funding cuts have resulted in universities run like big business, focused on the marketing of courses to boost income.
Education is treated as a commodity and the students, especially fee-paying international students, are treated as consumers.
It is sheer hypocrisy for university management to express concern about “cheating”. There are examples of management pressuring academics to pass international students because the students are fee paying—and the universities want to keep their reputation as offering value for money.
The ridiculously high tuition fees paid by international students, which may soon become a reality for domestic students, are not complemented by any serious effort to provide academic assistance necessary for their transition to a very different academic culture.
It is easy to pin the blame on the students for not having acquired adequate language and academic skills. But it is the responsibility of the universities to assist them, having profited tremendously from their fees.
Instead these students are left more or less on their own academically. Moreover, the increase in the size of tutorials means less individual attention and makes it more intimidating to speak in class.
Although the story has focussed attention on cheating and international students, the underlying issues are certainly not specific to international students.
The commodification of education also affects domestic students and teaching staff, with a significant percentage working under highly casualised and insecure conditions.
Unless we keep up the pressure on university management to stop acting like corporations and treating education as a commodity, the deterioration of our education system will continue.
The student movement must organise and advocate for the rights of international students, who share the same learning environment and suffer from the same consequences of cutbacks and commodification.
This also makes strategic sense when international students now constitute a significant minority of the student body, and as management care deeply about their reputation internationally.
It is the corporatised university and commodified education, not a small business or a small percentage of cheating students, that we should fixate blame on and fight against. It is their “fees-for-degrees” mentality that is cheating us all of a real education.
By Kevin Lin