Universities awash with international student cheaters


Like Groundhog Day, another report has emerged about systemic contract cheating by international students who pay ghostwriters to complete their assignments:

A ghostwriter for Assignment Joy told The Australian how the company targeted international students – mostly from China – who lacked the language skills to complete degrees in fields ranging from nursing, health science, education and psychology to business administration…

Academics say the sector’s response to widespread contract cheating is grossly inadequate and it was “virtually impossible” for individual markers or plagiarism software to detect fraudulently written assignments with any accuracy…

Sydney University associate professor Salvatore Babones said it was “impossible” to weed out contract cheating unless universities underwent radical reform and shifted back to in-person assessments and exams.

“The system encourages contract cheating,” he said.

“Universities are very concerned about it, but there is not a willingness to prevent it and change the culture.

“We won’t stop contract cheating without changing the way we do business … you can’t contract cheat on an in-class test.”

The rise in contract cheating across Australia’s universities relates directly to the boom in international students from non-English speaking nations.

As international student numbers boomed, so too has “contract cheating”. Consider the below reports.


In 2014 “functionally illiterate Chinese students were caught in an elaborate “ghost writing” scandal.

In 2015, ABC’s Four Corners’ “Degrees of deception” segment showcased systemic cheating by international students, with one university lecturer claiming half of their students had engaged in plagiarism.

Dozens of international students across New South Wales were then embroiled in an elaborate cheating racket, which prompted strong censure from the Independent Commission Against Corruption.


In 2019, international student associations demanded regulation of overseas agents amid widespread cheating on English language tests.

Four Corners’ “Cash Cows” report on Australia’s international student trade then highlighted large scale plagiarism and misconduct by international students.

Later in 2019, The AFR reported that “cheating has spread like wildfire” across Australia’s universities, driven by international students, whereas The ABC reported a “proliferation of ghostwriting” services targeted at international students.


In 2020, the regulator of Australia’s higher education institutions – the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (TEQSA) established a higher education integrity unit to work with higher education providers and government agencies to take action on cheating. TEQSA has also sent universities a list of more than 2000 commercial cheating websites, where students pay for others to complete their work, of which almost 600 are specifically targeting Australians.

The fundamental problem is that Australia’s higher education system has been turned into a commodity, with universities selling places to international students to maximise throughput and revenues.

Universities have gutted entry standards to boost enrolments, leading to almost any international student qualifying to study as long as they pay the fees. And since these international students pay so much money upfront, and lack the English language skills to succeed, they inevitably turn to contract cheating services to pass their courses.


Like associate professor Salvatore Babones says, universities could stamp the practice out, but doing so would put the entire international student ‘cash cow’ at risk. So, they don’t bother.

The ultimate victims are Australian students whose education quality is eroded as universities dumb down courses to cater to those with poor English skills.

Australians also no longer can trust that a university graduate is who they claim to be. Did they complete their qualifications fair and square, or did they cheat their way through university? Do they really have the technical skills to be an engineer or accountant? Or did they fake it?


The underlying solution is to shift to classroom assessments and target a smaller intake of higher quality international students via:

  1. Raising entry standards (particularly English-language proficiency);
  2. Raising financial requirements needed to enter Australia; and
  3. Removing the link between studying, work rights and permanent residency.

We must restore Australia’s universities back to being about ‘higher learning’ rather than ‘higher earning’.


International education also needs to become a genuine export industry rather than a people importing immigration industry.

Regrettably, the Albanese Government has taken the opposite path by uncapping the number of hours an international student can work while studying for another year, while also extending post-study graduate work visas by two years.

These reforms will inevitably lead to a surge in low quality ‘students’ coming to Australia for work rights and permanent residency. And with it, universities will be degraded even further.

About the author
Leith van Onselen is Chief Economist at the MB Fund and MB Super. He is also a co-founder of MacroBusiness. Leith has previously worked at the Australian Treasury, Victorian Treasury and Goldman Sachs.