Thousands of students could potentially face investigations for potential fraud after an investigation by Fairfax media revealed many have been buying assignments online, and even paying other people to sit online tests for them.
The assignments were bought through a website known as My Master, which has since been taken down.
It’s believed that the vast majority of universities in Australia have been affected.
Universities have strict plagiarism rules, which forbid students to copy, buy or pass off someone else’s work as their own.
The ability to purchase essays and assignments through the My Master website directly contravenes those rules, and concerns have been raised that if it continues, cheating by students could put the integrity and reputation of some of Australia’s most well-regarded institutions at risk.
Why do students buy assignments online?
There are reportedly a number of online assignment purchasing services around, and they are mostly targeted at overseas students who may have English as their second language.
The My Master website was targeted at Chinese students, it was written in Chinese and promoted on Chinese social media sites.
Overseas students pay a lot more than local students to study at Australian universities, and costs can be anything from $30,000 – $40,000 a year.
Unfortunately if their English is limited, they can struggle to complete assignments to an acceptable standard, which may mean they don’t pass.
Failing a subject or a course and having to retake it can be very expensive, and many students also face a lot of pressure to succeed from their families, so sites like My Master which offer a guaranteed pass or a credit can be very tempting.
How do sites like My Master work?
Essay writing sites like My Master work by hiring graduate writers to produce assignments and essays for students.
The students can upload details about the assignment and what approach they would like the writer to take, and the work will be written to a specified standard, and then sent back to the student who submits it as their own.
As universities regularly use plagiarism detection software, assignments that are written through these sites are usually guaranteed to be original so they can’t be detected through the software.
Instead, universities have to try to monitor known sites to detect whether students are using them to produce assignments, and this can be difficult to do.
Sites like My Master charge a premium for producing assignments.
The investigation which uncovered the My Master site put its estimated yearly income at $160,000.
Some students reportedly paid up to $1,000 to have assignments written for them, depending on the word length and the complexity of the topic.
What penalties will students face if they are caught?
Although plagiarism is forbidden by universities and can lead to failure and expulsion, it is not in itself a crime.
This means that it is not likely to be straightforward to penalise students from a criminal point of view.
In order to do so, the prosecution would need to prove that a financial benefit was obtained by deception in contravention of section 192E of the Crimes Act 1900 (NSW), which carries a maximum penalty of 10 years imprisonment.
However, that hurdle may be difficult to overcome given the absence of an immediate financial benefit.
How many students could this affect?
Records from the Fairfax investigation have shown almost a thousand assignments were produced this year for universities all over Australia using the service.
Although the process of finding those students and gathering evidence against them is probably going to be fairly lengthy, it is likely to be taken seriously by the universities that have been affected.
The Fairfax investigation obtained copies of assignments that were fraudulently written using the service, and these assignments can be compared with those submitted to the universities to determine which students used the service.
Many of the universities, including Wollongong and UTS, have expressed interest in receiving any evidence that students may have been cheating so they can investigate further.
Whether or not the matter ends up at court, it is likely that students who have been found using services like My Master could be heavily sanctioned and penalised by the universities who are looking to maintain their credibility and academic reputation.
The owner of the site, Chinese-born businesswoman Yingying Dou, has since taken it down.
She has yet to respond to any questions put to her by the media, and the matter has been referred to Australia’s university regulator, the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency.
Anyone who is facing potential fraud charges should seek advice from a lawyer with experience in handling criminal cases as soon as possible.