There was a one-week review period after Lei (not his real name) had a preliminary interview with an agency he is working for. During this week he received some English learning materials including specific requirements for text formats in European and American universities, grammar tutorial materials, and a free Grammarly (grammar correction tool) account.

The work Lei had applied for is to secretly take online courses, write homework and take exams for Chinese international students. "This is a market led by demand. Not only can you raise your English level, but you'll make pocket money too", encouraged a friend of Lei who had put him in contact with the service agency.

Since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, hundreds of millions of students in the world have been forced onto online courses, including international students.

Meanwhile, according to iiMedia Consulting, a Chinese data mining and data report analysis agency, China's overseas student population grew from 414,000 to over 700,000 between 2013 to 2019.

"One nasty side-effect of this boom has been the surge in contract cheating services, as revealed in several reports over recent years", said MacroBusiness, an Australian web media. Australia is the most popular destination for Chinese international students.

As Turntin, a web-based plagiarism and originality checking toolkit explained, contract cheating involves a student hiring a third party to complete academic work for him or her. As long as the student pays a fee, a service agency will find a ghostwriter to take charge of all school assignments, and even pretend to be the student in email exchanges with their professors. With constant contacts between the agency, the ghostwriter and the student, as long as the student can appear on time when requested for a visual online class or for face to face online tests, it's incredibly easy to cheat for the rest of the course.

Thanks to flyers stuck in toilets, social media and even open online ads, businesses like this are booming at an unprecedented speed, and this has created a viable business model in China over recent years.

Lei's first mission was to attend a class called "Intercultural communication" for a student studying in a community college. He was also the one to prepare the texts when his client was required to make a video answering his professor's questions. As a "lowest rank part-time service provider", he made 1200 RMB (€153) for three months of work.

Businesses like this are booming at an unprecedented speed

Basically, these service agencies have channels taking orders from abroad. Through layers of subcontracting, people such as Lei receive small and simple missions, such as attending an ordinary community college's online classes, writing single essays or doing homework. Bigger and more important orders are given to students or ghostwriters with suitable academic proficiency, "They usually hold high IELTS, TOEFL or GRE records, or are graduates from China's prestigious universities. Their wages can be very high", said Lei.

As Chinese lawyer Ruan Aiqian explained, at present China has no clear regulations prohibiting misconduct in online courses and the supervision of the matter is relatively weak.

Fei, a 24-year old Chinese student studying a master's degree in biology in France is also one of the ghostwriter army. Fei's pre-graduation internship should originally have started last March. Due to the pandemic, it fell by the wayside. Having nothing to do in her apartment, she found this job through an ad, and has since established her reputation thanks to her prompt delivery and quality work.

Last May, Fei's order was to take an online physics exam for a Chinese student studying in a British high school. Before the exam, the intermediary agent first confirmed the presence in real time of Fei, through WeChat. Then, through a real time back and forth of screen shots of questions and photos of answers, the agent, the client and Fei completed the exam together.

Fei said she was originally a bit nervous about being able to finish the exam in time, but when she finally saw the questions "They were so simple it made me really angry. This kid is so lazy that his family is just wasting money on him!"

Good business

As J&C, one of these clandestine Chinese agencies, bluntly puts it, the service of attending online courses has always existed. The difference is that almost all learning has gone online since last year. In most cases, the surrogate student doesn't even have to sit the courses in real time since the videos can usually be replayed.

China has no clear regulations prohibiting misconduct in online courses — Photo: Xinhua via ZUMA Wire

The industry model was initially created by irregular tutoring institutes aimed at students who wish to go abroad for studies. Therefore, they have a source for finding both students and ghostwriters.

For example, Yi acted as an intermediary agent between 2012 and 2016 when he was an international student himself providing services to clients on one hand, and to ghostwriters on the other hand. He was cashing in over $10,000 per month just by doing this part-time work.

It was "out of my own needs" in the beginning that Yi discovered the business opportunity. Studying at University of Waterloo, Canada, he was encountering difficulties in the subject of Financial Analysis and Risk Management. He then ended up paying other students to do the assignments for him. "At the end, friends around me thought I was trustworthy and one by one solicited my help in finding them service providers…"

To build up his own team of ghostwriters, Yi persuaded excellent students he was acquainted with to join him, but also, even more effectively, he recruited through the internet. "They are mostly housewives whose mother tongue is English and who have got no jobs." After years of experience, Yi has discovered an efficient recruiting method – encourage experienced ghostwriters to recommend new ones. By working as master and apprentice, the experienced one gets part of the newcomers' remuneration, but at the same time is responsible for paying back the fee if the service provided was deemed to have failed. "By doing it this way, I save a lot of energy in recruiting, training and quality control", Yi said proudly.

Yi takes 20% of each order payment. The rest belongs to the ghostwriters. The high earning percentage of the ghostwriters, he said, makes it relatively easy for him to find surrogate agents and clients.

Up to now he reckons that this is a profitable business with low risk. "There's no possible loss. As the money is collected in advance. If the client isn't satisfied with the service, you just have to return their money."

This is a profitable business with low risk.

In April 2019 the Australian Broadcasting Corporation reported that the Australian Ministry of Education has announced it will counter contract cheating by drawing up a new bill in which a ghostwriter could be punished with up to two years imprisonment or a penalty of up to 210,000 Australian dollars.

However, a staff member working at the Times Academy, Australia, was not at all secretive about her experience as a surrogate service agent. According to her, 100 % of the Times Academy's students are foreigners. It's neither a high school nor a college, but self-defined as an "educational institute". A lot of foreigners with a student visas arrive in Australia aiming to work, not to study. To maintain a legal right to stay, the annual enrollment fee of 5,000 Australian dollars at the Times Academy is obviously a lot more affordable than the usual 50-60,000-dollar fees of other universities.

It's not rare that students directly ask the staff member's service when they are enrolling with the school. She said that she charges 200 dollars a course and chooses students with whom she feels the communication has been smooth.

When asked by the Initium whether or not she worries about being denounced, she retorted "Why should I worry?" She reckoned that there are lots of other institutes like Times Academy in Australia. To grab foreign students in this competitive market it's very normal they help students to cheat "without any bottom line".

The risks faced by these intermediary services appear insignificant when the potential returns are so high. As Ruan Aiqian pointed out, according to China's regulations of company registration, if a company's operation exceeds its business scope, it can be punished accordingly or have its license revoked in the most serious cases. Yet, in most circumstances, students who seek ghostwriting services do not sign paper contracts with the service providers but go through WeChat or email communication.

Last December, this "perfect" business model gave rise to an "urban legend". It is said that one Chinese student who died in a car crash in November continued to churn out his assignments and communicated regularly with his professors and has even managed to sit his semester's final exams.

The truth is that after the rumor spread, many intermediary agencies have seen their businesses surge even higher!


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