Only days after Kenya made the headlines for producing the world's best teacher, it is in the news again, this time for the wrong reason.
It is described as a hotbed of academic dishonesty, where jobless graduates are minting millions of shillings writing thesis and term papers for students in the United Kingdom.
According to the British media, doctorate candidates pay £2,000 (Sh264,000) to £6,000 for dissertations. “Kenya is the hotbed where the writing happens. There is high unemployment and a job working from home is coveted. They have good English and low overheads,” Dr Thomas Lancaster, a senior fellow at Imperial College, London, was quoted by the British press as saying.
“There are thousands of people in Kenya whose job is to write essays for cheating students. There are several writers in every apartment block,” he added.
A motion is set to be introduced in the UK parliament to ban all forms of advertising for any assistance in academic work.
Initially, the business was done entirely through outsourcing websites run from Europe and hiring people with an ability to write academic material on a freelance basis and then floating jobs for them.
The jobs are usually academic papers given as assignments to students in Europe or the US, but are too lazy to do them. The pay is per page and can be as high as $15 (Sh1,500).
A Nation investigation on Monday found that several young people in Nairobi are engaged in the practice full-time.
In a shared office on Moi Avenue, the clicking of keyboards fuses with the noise from the street below to create the impression of an industry on a roll. The office, just a stone’s throw from the University of Nairobi, is illustrative of the booming underground industry that is helping thousands of students cheat their way to PhDs and Masters degrees.
For Sh30,000 to Sh50,000, depending on the course, one can get a research project done in two weeks to a month for work that is supposed to take an entire semester for a Masters student. And for Sh200,000, a PhD thesis can be done.
An assignment costs as little as Sh500, while a term paper sets you back about Sh2,000.
The company is just one of the dozens, if not hundreds, of such outfits spread across the country that are helping universities churn out graduates who have not met all the requirements.
Assignments and term papers contribute to the overall grade of a student. Masters and PhD students are required to undertake research project or thesis and defend it before they are cleared to graduate.
Dr Nancy Booker, the director of academic affairs at the Aga Khan University Graduate School of Mass Communication, says it is the only way for a graduate student to show that he or she has mastered a particular subject. “It shows you have mastered a discipline and you can execute a project from start to finish. It is what makes you an authority in a certain area,” she says.
However, with a simple search online or through referrals, students can get academic research papers done for them, which they present as their own without detection. Fuelled by access to cheap Internet, high unemployment rates among graduates and the commercialisation of university education, academic cheating continues to boom.
The “research writers”, as they are known, are not only helping Kenyan students cheat, but their work is being felt globally through the outsourcing websites.
The business gathered steam in 2009, when the importation of refurbished computers was zero-rated. The undersea fibre optic cable also came at about the same time, significantly bringing down Internet costs and presented Kenyan youths with a host of job opportunities.
Some graduates who could not get jobs found it a worthwhile method of self-employment. In estates like Roysambu, Kahawa West, Kasarani, Kahawa Wendani and areas neighbouring Kenyatta University), students have turned it into a money-minting venture.
However, the dry periods between May and September, when universities abroad are not in session, have made those engaged in the business turn to the Kenyan market, which looks like it had been waiting for them all along.
This is evident from the explosion of websites targeting Kenyan students who want to cheat their way to degrees. And the openness and vigour with which such services are being marketed is remarkable.
Just next to the University of Nairobi at Kampus Towers are about a dozen such firms, each employing up to 10 staff.
The beginners in the industry start by doing assignments and term papers before slowly graduating to research projects and then theses. All this from a desktop, with no field work whatsoever.
The findings from what is supposed to be field work are then cooked before the student is coached on how to defend his or her project.
“We do desktop research and then write the thesis based on that research. The time frame and total cost depends on the expected word count. We charge Sh800 per page,” an executive of a firm told this writer when he posed as a student looking for someone to do research for a Masters in Journalism degree.
“Our work is plagiarism-free and all the work is scanned before being submitting to the client,” the executive said.
So clinical are those in the business that they even ensure that the work is within the acceptable plagiarism range and any queries from the lecturer supervising the student are dealt with to perfection.
And business is booming. “It depends on the amount of work available, but in a month, I can do between six and seven research projects,” the owner of a company that does projects on behalf of students told the Nation.
“It is not that difficult as students see it. I can describe it as driving; once you learn how to do it, you do it so effortlessly. It is the students who fumble because it is something they do once in their academic journey,” he said.