SPECIAL REPORT: ‘Contract cheating’ in varsities a growing threat to education

What you need to know:

  • It is now becoming common practice for university students to hire people to do for them research reports and dissertations, threatening the credibility if academic credentials

Dar es Salaam. University students in Tanzania are increasingly hiring individuals and bureaus to write research reports and dissertations on their behalf in exchange for money, The Citizen can report.

If you happen to meet a student who has just completed and passed undergraduate or postgraduate studies, the chances are that their research reports or dissertation were crafted by people who are helping students cheat.

What the students do is prepare their research proposal and contract the “academic writers” to do the rest of the work for an agreed fee.

An investigation by The Citizen has discovered a rising number of bureaus and individuals who survive by writing dissertations and research reports for postgraduates and undergraduates.

This form of academic dishonesty is widespread among postgraduate students, most of whom are employed in the public as well as the private sectors.

Education experts say mushrooming research and dissertation mills are compromising the quality of higher education and the labour market.

Although there has not been comprehensive research in Tanzania on this form of academic dishonesty, experts are calling on universities to join forces to do comprehensive research on the scourge and find ways to curb it.

Dissertation bureaus

Inquiries by The Citizen show the unprecedented rise of bureaus doing research and dissertation fraud for both undergrads and postgrads in exchange for money.

People running the bureaus have established offices around university campuses and have employed agents to target potential customers in colleges.

Students who have talked to The Citizen are familiar with the illegal business; some say they were ready to hire them to do research on their behalf.

Dar es Salaam is the hub of individuals and backyard offices engaging in the illegal business, with the few others found in major regions like Mwanza, Arusha, Morogoro, and Dodoma.

Operators of the bureaus are lecturers, former lecturers, academicians, and other academically gifted individuals who have quit employment at universities to join the highly-paying work.

“I think you should first send me the title of your proposal that has been approved by your supervisor, then we can talk about the terms of my service; think of raising up to Sh1.5 million,” said a Morogoro-based dissertation writer (name withheld).

Oblivious of the Citizen’s investigation, the writer told this journalist that he has been engaging in the business for the past ten years.

“What I want to assure you is that the dissertation that I’m going to prepare for you will sail. I have never had a case where a dissertation prepared by me was rejected; I know the standards and what exactly your supervisors want,” said the writer.

Another academician based in Dar es Salaam has admitted he has been making a living by writing dissertations for the past four years.

He doesn’t feel guilty for the dishonest work he’s doing, saying what he does is to help students achieve their full potential and realise their dreams.

This writer has gone far to ask the government to recognize their work and allow students to seek their services freely.

“What I do is help students fulfill their dreams. They give me concept notes or proposals, and I do the rest of the work. I collect data for them upon negotiations. At the end of the day, they must read the work and defend it. Now what’s the problem?” asks the writer.

Education experts say this form of academic cheating was having far reaching implication on the quality and capability of graduates entering the labour market.

Research by The Citizen has indicated that Kenyans are among many people who are earning a living through dissertation writing in Tanzania.

Students are said to prefer Kenyan writers, whom they say are doing a good job, and there are big chances that the work done by them will sail.

“Mine was prepared by a Kenyan for Sh1.3 million; she’s very, very good! Talk to her about yours and you will see for yourself,” said a postgraduate student who recently defended her master’s thesis at a Dar es Salaam-based university.

Some bureaus have placed online advertisements for dissertation writing to allow undergraduate and postgraduate students to access their services easily.

A 22-year-old woman who has just completed her bachelor’s degree in journalism knows many students from her intake whose dissertations were done by people they hired to do the work for pay.

“I prepared mine myself because I didn’t have money to pay for people to hire. Had I had money, I would have hired the people to do the job for me,” she said.

She said those who write research for students have placed their agents in universities to search for students in need of their service.

“Sometimes supervisors are not aware of this kind of cheating; sometimes it depends on the supervisor; some are not that serious; they just point out mistakes in your research, then collect the work after correction,” she says.

Mr. Khalifa Said, editor of a news agency called The Chanzo, says academic cheating exists to an unprecedented degree in Tanzania.

He knows many graduates who have successfully sought the services of the mushrooming dissertation “mills” to fulfill their dreams of success.

“The problem is more serious for postgraduate students. Most are older, employed, and can afford to pay dissertation writers,” says Khalifa, holder of a bachelor’s degree in journalism and mass communication.

Khalifa says he was approached by someone who was ready to write him a research report for Sh500,000 during his final year at college. He says those doing the work are graduates and teachers at different colleges.

“Your supervisor would have told you that he can do the research for you or he can find someone who can do the work for you.” So, sometimes you find it is safer to use your supervisor because you get assurance of sailing,” he says.

A lecturer at an Iringa-based university who asked for anonymity admitted the problem was serious but was quick to defend the lecturer for engaging in the activity.

“Lecturers are receiving meager salaries; they can’t maintain their families, so what they do is just one way of supplementing insufficient salaries,” he said.

A moral and ethical crisis

Mr Said says efforts to curb academic cheating should start by addressing falling moral and ethical standards among graduates as well as supervisors, as opposed to fighting the rise of “dissertation mills.”

“It is an ethical issue. The question of how we enforce ethics among graduates and teachers should be a priority to anyone seeking to tackle this problem.

“We should find ways of imparting ethical responsibilities during the orientation of students in our universities and colleges. The problem is that people do not care about ethics. We are a nation of people who don’t care about what’s wrong and what’s right. That’s the problem I see.”

“Every malady we see in our society today can be explained by falling ethical standards. You can’t build a nation using people who have cheated all the way to attain academic qualifications,” he says.

Varsities speak out

Universities are aware of this form of academic cheating and have admitted the problem is difficult to curb.

Although some universities have introduced several measures to curb academic fraud, dissertation bureaus have continued to thrive and remain the biggest threat to the quality of education in Tanzania.

“It is true that there are people in town sitting down and writing dissertations for students. I am the associate dean of the School of Education; we once discovered a trend, but I don’t have evidence that my students are engaged in this kind of cheating,” says University of Dar es Salaam (UDSM) Vice Chancellor, Prof. William Anangisye.

Prof. Anangisye says supervisors need to observe high ethical standards to curb academic dishonesty in research reports and dissertations.

He says the university has acquired software that detects academic fraud, such as plagiarism, among students. “Once we discover that a thesis has been plagiarized, you can’t get an award.”

“Why people sometimes shun the University of Dar es Salaam at the master’s and PhD levels is because of our strictness in tackling academic dishonesty. The management of this university is doing all it can to ensure quality assurance,” he says.

Head of the department of Journalism and Mass Communication at St. Augustine University, Dr Peter Mataba, said the leadership of the college was well aware of the cheating scourge among some students during their research.

He said, however, that the university was implementing several measures to fight contract cheating, including putting in place tough systems to detect and control academic cheating.

“There are people who are doing research for higher education students; others have gone far to advertise their dirty business. We at Saut have put in place well-functioning systems to detect and control this tendency,” said Dr Mataba.

He mentioned some of the ways to curb the trend, including ensuring students pursuing a master’s degree or PhD have two supervisors, including an external supervisor.

“We insist on two supervisors including an external one to narrow chances of collusion to cheat. Even if it happens that a student collude with an internal supervisor because they know each other, he or she can’t do so to external supervisor because they don’t know each other,” he said.

According to Dr Mataba, close supervision and frequent meetings between students and their supervisors at various stages of their research were another tactic the institution used to detect whether the research was being done in accordance with standards and the appropriate time frame set by the college.

“For instance, a supervisor must raise suspicion when a student uses three days to finish work that was supposed to be done in months,” he said.

Dr Mataba said students who cheat are sometimes caught when defending their work before a panel of supervisors.

According to Dr Mataba, the college has also installed software to detect research and dissertation fraud and other forms of cheating, particularly when the source of, say, plagiarized text has not been digitalized.

However, universities are urged to go beyond installing software to curb academic cheating, and people surviving on the scourge were employing more sophisticated ways to avoid cheating detectors.

UDSM deputy director of post-graduate studies, Prof. Donatha Tibuhwa, says academic cheating is not a new phenomenon.

“This problem is not new; it is a global problem. We are doing everything in our capacity to keep it out of our university,” says

She says the university has been conducting training, seminars, and orientations for all newly recruited lecturers and students to instill a sense of ethical responsibility and respect for university values.

“The university has many mechanism to curb this, even if the research report has been written by someone rather than our student, he or she must own the work. We want that person to get knowledge. Now, if it has been written by someone or not that I cannot say for sure provided that she passes our tests,” she says.

Every year, about 8,000 undergraduate, 1,000 postgraduate, and between 80 and 100 PhD students graduate from UDSM.

On the concern that most of those consulting dissertation mills for pay were postgraduate students, Ms Tibuhwa says that could be true because potential clients for postgraduate studies were employees.

“Those are our potential clients. They come from organizations or public offices that have sponsorship programs for employees pursuing further studies,” she says.

Prof Tibuhwa urges those involved in helping students to cheat to diversify their energy and engage in other well-paying academic works.

“Can’t we turn these brains into something useful? They have huge potential! The government should see how they can help this country academically, such as by teaching research methodology, etc.” she says.

“Students should do presentations and defend their academic work.” This, she said, minimizes dissertation fraud because students constantly have to defend what they have written and show that they are the authors of their work.

Executive Director of the education-focused civil society organisation, HakiElimu Dr John Kalage says his organization has heard the thriving industry of dissertation writing but has not researched on it.

“We don’t have evidence on it, but you will be surprised to find a graduate with first-class certificates, but his or her academic success completely doesn’t match what he or she demonstrates upon being employed,” he says.

“We have cases of Form II students who can’t read and write, so when you triangulate this, you get the answers. A young bachelor’s degree graduate’s academic qualifications don’t match their experience. And if this is a doctor, it means patients are at big risk,” he said.

Dr. Kalage proposes an overhaul of the academic qualification assessment mechanism to ensure those who cheat do not sail.

“We should look at a good system of assessing our graduates. What we hear from LST is a wakeup call. The problem is that the products that they (LST) receive from universities and colleges are quite inferior. People cheat all the way up to their employment” he says.

“We need to invest in skills rather than academic papers, which people can easily procure through dubious means.”

He proposes that universities should design ways and programs to inculcate values that will help curb cheating and corruption in academic affairs.

“It is a serious problem in our education system. Many students value the hard copy certificate they obtain from universities but not knowledge/education demonstrated in those papers. They know they acquired them through cheating,” he says.

The Executive Director of the Association of Tanzania Employers (ATE), Suzan Ndomba-Doran, could not directly state whether or not academic fraud was affecting employers, saying they have not done any research on it.

“There is a research we are doing on this areas, I will inform you when it is out, currently I cannot comment on that issue without data,” she said.

TCU speaks

The Tanzania Commission for Universities (TCU) says it has established standards and guidelines for the purpose of regulating the quality and conduct of postgraduate training, research, and innovation.

It says the quality assurance standards and guidelines it has set to check academic fraud and ensure ownership of work by students are being respected.

They are also intended to ensure that the structures, contents, delivery, assessment, and awards of postgraduate study programs in the country are harmonized.

“Our work as TCU is to set minimum guidelines that must be adhered to by universities to ensure quality of education. The standards were set to ensure ownership,” says Prof. Kihampa

He says to ensure ownership, a student must present his or her work before a panel. “If it is not his or hers, you will start noticing issues of ownership,” he relates.

“The possibility for some people to misconduct in universities is there; that’s why we are here, but guidelines to ensure ownership are there also,” he said.

Prof. Kihampa said the commission has already conducted an audit of postgraduate courses offered by accredited universities.

“Universities have some autonomy; we don’t prescribe them everything, but we set minimum standards and guidelines for quality assurance. We don’t police universities, but we facilitate them to allow innovations,” said Prof. Kihampa.