person writing on brown wooden table near white ceramic mug

It did the job: the essay help was good and the student got a high grade. Chris’s friend was pleased too. “He treated me to a hotpot in Singapore – that was the first time I’d been to a hotpot restaurant,” he recalls.

Then the student asked him to help her with another assignment. “I said: ‘I can’t eat hotpot every day, I should charge a price.’ Then she introduced me to her classmates and that’s how everything began,” says Chris.

Today, he runs what’s known as an ‘essay help’ – a highly lucrative business writing assignments for students struggling to complete them on their own.

Student cheating has been in the spotlight recently, after the US college admissions scandal made global headlines. It’s not the first such scandal: India, for example, is still dealing with the fall-out of apparently large-scale medical school admission examination fraud.

But it’s not just admissions: there’s also the problem of what some students do once they get into university – and the role played by people like Chris.

‘Grey area’

After studying in Singapore for many years, he’s now back in China where he writes essay helps and farms others out to a team of workers for student clients as far afield as Australia and the UK. His business can turn over as much as $150,000 a year.

It grew after that first student moved to Australia to do her master’s degree and passed his name on to other people. He writes at least one essay a week but, as a global studies major, farms assignments on subjects like business and finance out to his specialists. He charges about 1 RMB per word, so a 1,000-word piece would come in around 1,000 RMB.

Chris – who doesn’t want to share his surname – suggests what he’s doing sits somewhere between cheating and teaching.

“I tell [the students] every time: ‘You can refer to my essay help but you cannot submit it directly to your professor’. But what they do – I cannot control [that]. There are certain students who actually learn from me, so I think it is in a grey area.”

Sometimes, he says, he wants to say no. “I told myself I should quit because this is cheating – they didn’t learn anything from me. Then one month later they call me again, saying, ‘Could you please help me again because I need to pass this assignment in order to graduate’. Then I say OK, if that is the case, I will help just this last time. I really want them to learn but it’s just difficult.”

Gareth Crossman of the UK’s Quality Assurance Agency takes a considerably tougher line. He believes that, as well as undermining their own education, the students’ actions have bigger implications.

“They are also cheating wider society, because you do not want people going out into the workforce who are frankly unqualified,” he says. “The Royal College of Nursing has expressed concern about this being a phenomenon, with nurses coming out without proper qualifications.”

“I think the fact that institutions are increasingly willing to accept that this is an issue – and a reputational risk that is attached to it – is to their credit, but it shows that this is a significant issue that does need to be addressed.”