What essay-gate is really about

Last week the Sydney Morning Herald uncovered academic misconduct at an an “industrial” level at prominent Australian universities. International students make for an easy scapegoat, but they’re not the ones to blame, writes Bibek Gurung.

For those not up to speed, a few days ago one of the largest essay ghost-writing services was taken down. Now, obviously cheating is wrong and people who engage in these ‘services’ are just stealing from themselves and society at large. It’s something I myself would never do. But we all know what essay-gate (for want of a better term) is really about – yet another manufactured scandal designed to scapegoat a group of people who make for an easy target.

As soon as the story first broke, most of the conversation started to revolve around international students. It’s a lot of the same stuff I’ve been hearing since I came to this country over three years ago. Specifically about how we’re largely a brigade of spoiled brats funded by mummy and daddy, toting Prada handbags, being ‘functionally illiterate’, and on the receiving end of favouritism for the system as we go about not playing fair.

Now let me just get one fucking thing straight. There are more than half a million international students in this country and about half of that number in New South Wales alone. To date, only about a thousand or so students have been implicated in these essay ghost-writing cases: about a fifth of a per cent and that’s assuming these services were used exclusively by international students. The original article in the SMH never even stated how many were international or domestic students, but somehow people feel it’s safe to assume because they just know, right?

And most of us aren’t rich trust-fund babies who come here because we can just afford to pay 40 grand a year in fees, plus expenses. A lot of us took the best option that we had out of a bad lot so that we could have better lives. This is something that a lot of people born into cushy middle-class Western lives don’t seem to comprehend because they were lucky enough to start out from a position that so many of us are struggling so hard just to end up in. Most of us aren’t loaded and illiterate, but of course those are the ones you’ll notice. It’s called confirmation bias. Look it up.

I have to say, though, that I completely empathise with those kids who paid for the essay services. There is tremendous pressure on you if you’re an international student. Obviously there’s the hugely expensive yearly fee that you have to pay up-front. But there are also other issues. You will never get concession pricing for public transport. You will never get Centrelink (I barely even understand what it is). Unless you can afford to pay for private, health insurance consists of trying not getting sick. You can legally only work twenty hours a week, can never take a lighter uni load, and basically have no local experience or contacts to call up on. This means most international students can’t find decent jobs to support themselves and are at the complete mercy of shady, unreliable employers who can and will exploit them. If your parents aren’t loaded money is always going to be a constant, constant worry.

It’s also easy to forget that these are students who’ve come to a foreign society to them where they customs, language, and norms are completely different. It’s bad enough that you will have almost no social network to rely on, but once you do end up setting down roots and building a life for yourself you will be shown the door at the end of your degree unless you happened to study for a profession that the government deems ‘valuable.’

The universities themselves do almost nothing to ease these students into this life, or give them the kind of academic, emotional, or even financial support that they need to flourish. These are students who shown so much courage, resilience, resourcefulness, and intelligence to be able to take this kind of leap – they’re the cream of the crop and the university would be able to tap into their potential if they didn’t just see them as an easy cash cow to be squeezed.

Essay-gate really isn’t an issue about the international students; it’s about the robber baron uni administrators who only see us as BSBs. With all the obstacles that stand between international students and the successful completion of their degrees, it’s a testament to their character that cheating isn’t even more common.