Confessions of a university ghost writer

MARY has written extended essays on commerce but she is no business student. She has completed assignments on Chinese Tang dynasty poetry and Asian history but she is no lover of humanities.

Mary is an academic ghost writer who helps students cheat by doing their work. For the past three years Mary, 21, has written essays for other students in return for cash.

She started her underground trade as an international student in year 12 after leaving her home in China's Guangdong province.

A friend asked her to complete an assignment for a girl he liked from the year below. Mary wrote three essays for her customer and charged $150.

''It was quite easy for me to do year 11 work. I finished it in three or four hours,'' she says.

Although her customer misunderstood the task and subsequently failed, Mary loved earning quick money. She felt no guilt for her customer's failure. ''It was not my fault. I just did what she told me to.''

She has built her business steadily since starting university. Mary has completed about 20 assignments and plans to do more.

Dressed in a green poncho, jeans and a jade bangle, Mary is pretty and polite.

She speaks candidly in near perfect English about her work. A beige designer handbag sits at her feet.

Mary, who lives in the Melbourne CBD, is studying environmental science at a university in Melbourne. She will apply for permanent residency and plans to work in real estate after completing her degree.

Her unconventional childhood aspiration to become a brothel madam was inspired by powerful businesswomen portrayed in period dramas on Chinese television. She will still pursue this ambition if she is granted permanent residency.

She says many international students are paid $7 an hour working illegally in restaurants.

Mary refuses to work for such meagre wages while demand for her essays remains high.

She receives one or two requests a month each semester. This month, The Age revealed online essay mills were targeting international students in Australia through Chinese language social media sites.

Mary's customers find her through word of mouth. She has fielded requests from as far as the United States.

Customers pay about $150 for 1000 words but Mary charges more for a quick turnaround or if she is required to do extensive research.

The results, she says, are always pretty good. She averages about 70 per cent for other students' assignments but has scored above 90 per cent.

While cheating certainly takes place among domestic students, Mary works exclusively for Chinese students.

She has taken elaborate measures to avoid detection for fear of expulsion from university. She discusses her work only in person and on the phone, never in writing through email or text messages that can be traced to her.

Mary's customers transfer payment into a friend's bank account to cover the money trail. ''I try to be really careful. I never give my work to two different people.''

She said she would never pay someone to write an assignment for her. ''I don't trust other people. I think I would do better.''

Mary is a pseudonym.

b.preiss@theage.com.au

The story Confessions of a university ghost writer first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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