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Exclusive: Buying essays from ghostwriters allegedly widespread among international students at NZ universities

An exclusive 1 NEWS investigation has uncovered allegations of widespread cheating, undermining the integrity of New Zealand's universities and tertiary institutions.

Chinese students have told 1 NEWS that as many as half of the international students studying at Auckland University buy their essays from ghostwriters.

More than 125,000 international students study in New Zealand, the biggest group from China, followed by India.

They contributed a massive $4.6 billion to our economy last year, our fifth biggest export earner.

But if cheating is as rampant as alleged what will this do for our reputation? 

Six-and-a half-thousand overseas students study at the University of Auckland, all lured by the promise of a quality Kiwi education, a degree with international clout.

But it appears some of these students are cheating their way to that qualification.

This Chinese student, who 1 NEWS called Ju, claims as many as half the international students at Auckland University are buying other people's work and passing it off as their own.

"I have to say many of my friends are buying essays," Ju said.

"I've done it about five to six times."

Another Chinese student has a similar story. Camera-shy, we used an actor.

"I paid someone else to write essays for me during the start of uni," she said.

Known as ghostwriting, it's a practice well known to some at the Chinese Student Association.

This member, Kai, studies at Massey University. 

"There's a large number of international students buying their essays. They definitely know they're cheating," Kai said.

Finding a ghostwriter on the internet is easy. 1 NEWS contacted one of over 10,000 advertising on the Chinese equivalent of Amazon, Taobao.

In a text conversation with 1 NEWS, the ghostwriter said: "Basically we charge 20 New Zealand cents a word. An urgent or a guaranteed A grade essay costs more. Just send me your essay topic, then I can arrange a writer for you."

She went on to say: "We just helped a girl studying pre-school education in New Zealand to write her assignment."

But it's not just overseas writers. Ju told us people come to student activities and sidle up to first years offering their essays for cash services. Students also get recommendations from their friends for a good ghostwriter. 

Six years ago, a Stuff investigation uncovered an Auckland agency that wrote more than 11,500 essays over a seven-year period, raking in $4.6 million. While no charges were ever laid, in a civil case police recovered more than $2 million under the Proceeds of Crime Act. 

But it appears the problem has only got worse.

In a statement, Education Minister Chris Hipkins says these are very serious allegations and he has received assurances from universities they will do everything in their power to clamp down on any practices that would affect their and New Zealand's reputation.

Auckland University says it's aware of the potential for any student to cheat, but hasn't identified an increase in cheating. It says it has a range of measures to limit cheating.

Massey University admits last year it identified two cases of ghostwriting, going on to warn all international students against trying it on.

"But I haven't heard of anyone I know who's been punished for buying essays," Kai said.

Kai says the cheating continues.

Overseas students contribute more than $4.6 billion dollars to our economy, prized income for New Zealand and our tertiary institutions. 

But we're attracting fewer lucrative Chinese students in recent years. According to The Times Higher Education Ranking, none of New Zealand's universities are considered to be in the world's top 200 institutions.

Just last month Education New Zealand launched a new global campaign to attract more international students, calling it New Futures Need New Paths.

Right now that pathway looks a little murky.

When asked, "Do you consider yourself a cheat?', Ju replied, "Yes."

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Students say that as many as half of the international students at Auckland University buy their essays from ghost writers. Source: 1 NEWS