Ghost Writers: a Strange Phenomenon

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Ghost Writers

A recent article in The Guardian, a UK newspaper, drew my attention to the phenomenon of the use of Hong Kong-based ‘ghost writers’ by Mainland Chinese students. The term ‘ghost writer’ normally refers to an individual who writes a document on behalf of another, and such writers are perhaps most commonly associated with celebrity autobiographies. Celebrities, having neither the time nor in most cases the skill to write their own memoir, employ a writer to put down their memories in a coherent form. In China, however, the term ‘ghost writer’ is used to refer to an individual who takes an exam on behalf of another.

These ghost writers take English language proficiency tests such as IELTS and TOEFL, which are needed in order to be eligible for immigration visas and university courses. The consequences of failing to pass a test are so severe that individuals are willing pay lots of money in order to ensure a passing grade. This means that the ghost writing industry can be extremely lucrative. A July 2011 article by Kane Wi published on ChinaDaily.com.cn reveals that ghost writers charge Mainland Chinese students ¥10,000 for each IELTS scoring point that they need to achieve. As IELTS is assessed on a scale from 0 to 9, a student looking to get into a good UK university can expect to pay in excess of ¥60,000 to their ghost writer.

If a student is caught cheating at an IELTS centre in Mainland China, they will receive no test score and will be banned from sitting IELTS tests in the Mainland for life. Moreover, ghostwriters can face serious consequences for their actions. In July 2011, Zhao Chunlin, an 18 year old Mainlander, was jailed for six months for taking a test on behalf of another individual. However, there is currently no communication between the IELTS administrators in different countries. This means that a Mainland Chinese student caught cheating outside of Mainland China can still take the test again in a Mainland Centre.

The writer of The Guardian article, Glenn Fulcher, Reader in Education at the University of Leicester in the UK, highlights how financially lucrative being a ghost writer is. With test takers under immense pressure to pass English language proficiency tests, the market for ghost writer remains large. After all, “If your future depends upon travel, study or work opportunities and you cannot meet the bar, the value you place upon the test score may outweigh the cost and fear of being caught cheating.” Fulcher goes on to argues that test scores are valuable commodities because of the benefit that they give to the consumer, and that as ‘Humans trade in commodities’, unfortunately ‘when they cannot trade, they sometimes steal.’

One of the ironies of this phenomenon is that students who cheat their way through the IELTS requirements for universities are actually cheating themselves. They may have paid a significant amount for access to a course that they can’t actually understand. Moreover, will they actually be able to pass their university assessments if their language proficiency was too low to gain entry in the first place?

Matt Wisbey




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