Inside the shadowy world of Academic Ghostwriters

By Fitzgerald Munyoro

A gripping air of uncertainty fills Ivy Sithole(24)as she reads a message that one of her former university classmates has just posted in their degree program Whatsapp chat group.

It reads; “guys check your portal, our final year results are out.”

Whilst others are brimming with excitement at the prospect of graduation, Ivy’s head is spinning .

She ponders to herself; “I hope that guy did justice to my dissertation . I paid a lot of money for him to write it.”

She suddenly remembers stories she heard at college of others who had been caught red handed in academic malpractice and were in most cases suspended or expelled.

She reasons to herself; “what could I do when I had a mbinga(rich blesser) for a boyfriend? He gave me everything, I had to give him everything as well.”

However, she manages to shake off these thoughts and she musters enough courage to open her academic portal.

To her relief; the dissertation has been graded as a 2.1, the second highest attainable mark, like an evil genius she smirks to herself.

The plan worked and she is going to be a graduate.

Without missing a beat she posts the infamous lyrics “Mama I Made It” on her Facebook,Twitter,Instagram and Whatsapp accounts.

Within seconds, online friends and relatives dotted all over the country and in the diaspora respond with congratulatory messages and animate her online profiles with  emojis.

For the next month,the peace and boredom of daily life will be on a swivel as her parents put their economic struggles aside and pull out all the stops to make her graduation day unforgettable.

In turn,Ivy will have sleepless nights of her own.

Ivy and her two university  best friends will exchange hundreds of downloaded images featuring skinny white models dressed in the latest chic graduation outfits.

Their cocoon of a WhatsApp group titled “Besties for Ever” has been a hive of university gossip and boyfriend talk for the previous four years.

However, for the pre graduation period it will be turned into a fashion critique platform as the girls agree then disagree only to agree and disagree yet again on their choice for the perfect graduation outfit.

The month of hustle and bustle will culminate in whirlwind weekend where close relatives and siblings will accompany her to the graduation ceremony.

In the ensuing circus, Ivy and her friends will take countless pictures and post them online.

The pictures will be captioned with inspirational quotes and song lyrics that rubber-stamp the good old values of hardwork,patience and perseverance.

The captions will be married with trendy hashtags such as #Takachimasterchigameichi loosely translated ‘we are masters of the game’ amongst others.

Once again, the online community will congregate on Ivy’s social media posts with more likes, congratulatory messages and messages of affirmation.

Meanwhile, far from the graduation circus, in a tiny room in one of Harare’s high density surburbs, James Ncube(not real name) has long forgotten about authoring Ivy’s project, it has been shelved in a computer folder along with the hundreds of other dissertations he and his team have written for the so called graduates .

He is busy scavenging social media platforms looking for more university scholars who are eager to share the rigours of academic life and allow him to “ghostwrite” their assignments and dissertations for a fee.

Whilst it might be difficult to find parrallels between Hip-hop music and the world of academia ,one thing they do agree on is the need for originality and authenticity.

The practice of “ghostwriting”  which can be defined as writing in the name of another  person, group, company or institution without receiving a byline or public credit is one that is shunned upon.

Hence it is a cause for concern that the shadowy art of ghostwriting is threatening to lacerate the integrity  of academic research.

In light of these revelations, Impact Stories Zimbabwe went behind the scenes to put some facts and faces behind the mounting  rumours that a surmountable amount of academic research in Zimbabwe have an unwanted asterik.

Owing to it’s illegal nature, the world of academic ghostwriting is one that is opaque and filled with faceless characters.

As a result getting them to divulge their trade secrets was no easy feat, so for the purposes of confidentiality, pseudo names will be used.

A Sport for the Intelligent?

The aforementioned Ncube,who is a thirty something  Bulawayo native currently residing  in Harare. He says that he started academic ghostwriting as soon as he left university about eight years ago.

“I started it when I had just  finished college. I was a very bright scholar and I still am (laughs) and at the end of my first  degree. I was awarded with a book prize.

“So it naturally follows that such a reputation precedes you. University students  started approaching me for help. I used to do it for free but the number of people seeking assistance started growing so I monetized my services,” says Ncube.

He knows that what he is doing is illegal but economic hardships have forced him to pursue this uncouth path.

“I do have another job but just like anyone else, the salary is just  not enough. The Zim (Zimbabwean) economy is hard so I use it to supplement my salary,” says Ncube.

From what Ncube claims, the money from academic ghostwriting is alluring; The least amount he gets paid for just one chapter  is US$100 and he nets up to as much as US$5000 in his ‘trade’.

“I charge US$100 for a chapter and 500 for the whole dissertation. For a master’s degree the price goes up to US$1000. For Phd graduates and beyond I charge US$5000,”says Ncube.

In academic calendar year, he writes as many 20 dissertations. Though he could not be persuaded to name institutions, he confirmed that most of his clientele are male.

He has since recruited a team with whom he works with in ghostwriting academic work.

Ncube’s tale of a passionate academic  exploiting loopholes in the education system is similar to the one Ashley Moyo shared with this writer.

Moyo who is a holder of a Master’s Degree within the field of humanities says that academics are her natural calling.

“I have always been a person who loves academics. Unfortunately in Zimbabwe there are not many opportunities where one can invest in academics.Lecturing opportunities are few and far between. When you do find them the money is not quite attractive.

“When people approach me seeking assistance, I find it as an opportunity to express myself within the field.

“Of course I cannot ignore the financial side as well. It is quite rewarding and also helps me make extra money to supplement my meagre salary,” he said.

Moyo said that she handles about 5 to 6 clients in an academic year and charges between 30-50 dollars for a chapter.

Scholars in academia have raised red flags on the matter of academic ghostwriting and it is making the idea behind university education redundant.

Dr Last Alfandika, a lecturer in humanities at Great Zimbabwe University said that a dissertation is the most important part of a tertiary student learning.

Great Zimbabwe University Lecturer Dr Last Alfandika

He added that the dissertation is not only important to the student and the academic institution. It is also filling a gap in global pool of knowledge in the given area of study.

“By giving the student an opportunity to write a dissertation, we are testing the student’s ability to identify problems in an area he or she would have chose.They can carry out a systematic research to gather information that can help solve the given problem.”said Alfandika.

The academic doctor did not mince his words when exploring the subject of academic ghostwriting.

“These so called academic consultancies are committing what we call academic fraud.Students are submitting work which they would not have done.In very polite terms, the work is fake.The results or findings from such research does not mean anything at the end of the day since it also desktop work. It benefits no one”

Dr Alfandika also confirmed to the writer that he has come across such cases where ghostwriting is evident.

“I have encountered such situations on a number of occasions.We know how novice students write and the hereditary errors that they make. So on occasions it becomes clear that it is not a student’s work.As a counter measure, we change the topic for students in such cases.”said Dr Alfandika.

His views were echied by Dr Ndaba Ndlovu who is an associate professor for British University teaching Management of Business Administration (MBA) in Zimbabwe.

Dr Ndaba added that in the bigger picture,academic ghostwriting is truly short changing the nation from knowledge that should be adding value to existing industries.

“The objective of a dissertation is to apply critical thinking and do independant research. So academic consultancy is fraud and should be reported as such.”

He also revealed to the writer that he has encountered such cases but lamented the lack of will by responsible authorities to enforce rules,laws and guidelines.

“I have flagged such cases before and i even reported a few cases to the police and nothing has happened. It appears as if ZIMCHE does not take this seriously.”said Dr Ndlovu.

Questions emailed to the Zimbabwe Council for Higher Education‘s( ZIMCHE) public relations office had not been responded to by the time of going to press.

ZIMCHE is the Ministry of Higher and Tertiary Education, Innovation, Science and Technology Development‘s quality assurance and academic standards regulatory body.

Dr Ndaba Ndlovu warned that the practice of academic ghostwriting is going to have a number of adverse long term effects.

“This practice has an effect on the quality of work produced by student at their work. Cumulatively we are going to have a stagnant or even depreciated industry.As academic institutions our credibility will be tainted as well.,”said Dr Ndlovu.

According to statistics,Zimbabwe has one of the highest number of degreed people in Africa. However globally the standard of education is dwindling .

According to the Times Higher Education World University Rankings in 2023,University of Zimbabwe is the highest ranked local institute and it is ranked as number 2139.

The wave is cascading in all sectors and none more so pronounced than in the political space where a degree fetishism appears to be in effect.

In Zimbabwe, The current President,first lady and first Vice President all carry the title of academic doctor.

In the previous administration, the former First Lady Grace Mugabe was also conferred with a Doctorate degree albeit under controversial circumstances.

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