North Africa, West Asia: Feature

The ‘helpers’: the Yemeni students doing homework for the Saudis

Amid war and a COVID-19 lockdown, some students in Yemen have found a new market, selling academic services to their wealthy neighbours

Zahra Alqadasi
29 March 2021, 12.00am
Students attend a class in Sana'a University in July 2020
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Mohammed Mohammed/Xinhua News Agency/PA Images. All rights reserved

Yemen’s universities are absent from the Times Higher’s world university ranking, lagging behind their Saudi counterparts. But a group of Yemeni students have nonetheless found themselves working for the benefit of their neighbours. They offer services that include completing homework and essays, and even sitting in, long-distance, at exams. They are known as the ‘helpers’.

Ali Saleh (not his real name), a fourth-year undergraduate at the University of Sana’a, is among those who have resorted to this type of work while stuck at home amid the country’s war and the coronavirus pandemic. “I was asked to solve a physics exercise on behalf of a Saudi student. This was my first paid assignment, for a sum of 50 Saudi rials ($13). It was awarded full marks and I earned a good reputation as a provider of student services,” he said.

Saleh was subsequently hired, via a friend, by students at Jazan University in Saudi Arabia to complete a number of homework assignments in English. According to Saleh, Jazan is one of the leading sources for requests for help with assignments.

“This is a well-known phenomenon in many countries,” said Mohammed Abd Alwahab, a professor of communication in the media department at Sana’a University and a former head of department of journalism and media at Jazan. “But it’s more rampant amongst Gulf students given that they have access to money.”

The cheating did not originate with the COVID-19 pandemic, but it has greatly increased since March 2020, as education has moved online.

In Yemen, owing to the poor resources available to both students and universities, in addition to slow internet speeds, students have had to stay home without work or regular study, and were forced to look for new job opportunities. “My friend started two weeks before me when he received a request from a mechanical engineering student who had been in the business of facilitating this kind of work for Saudis for over two years,” said Saleh.

How it works

Sana’a-resident Abdallah Jamal (again, not his real name) is an undergraduate student who specialises in artificial intelligence. Like Saleh, Jamal was introduced to the work by a friend. This friend asked him to answer a programming question for free, supposedly on behalf of a relative. As the requests kept coming, Jamal started to suspect that his friend was actually making money from them.

Jamal decided to look for Saudi student groups on the messaging and social networking app Telegram, so he could offer his services without intermediaries. The prevalence of groups, especially on WhatsApp and Telegram, show how common this phenomenon is in Saudi Arabia. Alongside semi-official groups that allow students to ask for information informally, some groups allow people to offer specific paid-for illicit services. Sitting an exam on behalf of someone else, for instance, can cost up to 250 Saudi rials ($66).

Saleh said that competition for business has become much tougher since the beginning of lockdown

In one of the specialist groups, a Saudi student will post a request for a particular service, which is met by offers that frequently come from Yemeni students. Saleh said that competition for business has become much tougher since the beginning of lockdown. Before the pandemic, he estimated that around 70 students were selling their services. “Now,” he said, “a single group contains twenty thousand Yemeni students and a thousand Saudi students.”

Requests don’t only come from Saudis. Students at Emirati and Kuwaiti universities also make requests, but their universities are notorious for the difficulty of their exams. Despite the higher rates they offer, the work is often not taken up. Jamal recounted receiving a mark of just 3 out of ten when he sat an exam on behalf of a Kuwaiti student. Now he refuses any requests from Kuwait, to avoid ruining his reputation in the market.

Common motives

The Yemenis I spoke to offered different explanations for what pushes Saudi students to use their services. Some said that these students want a qualification simply to impress their families, who tend to own companies or live off investments.

Others said that the students aren’t interested in studying, but want to secure the scholarships that Saudi universities grant to high achievers. These can reach up to 1500 Saudi rials ($400) per month. Others still said they thought that it was down to a lack of self-confidence.

What motivates the suppliers? “In the beginning,” said Sameh, another Sana’a student speaking under an assumed name, “it wasn’t a question of money as I already had an account on Chegg [a subscription website that offers answers to textbook exercises and tutors who can explain the material]. But responding to Saudi requests soon became a source of income, which could reach 900 Saudi rials ($240) a day.”

Other ‘helpers’ said that the work gave intangible benefits too, such as allowing them to expand their professional network, or increasingly their knowledge of subjects not taught in Yemeni universities. Sameh is now saving money to open his own business, while Jamal has used his contacts to encourage Saudi investors to support projects in Yemen.

Jamal was struck by the fact that it’s often the students’ parents who seek out his services. He said he was aware of the ethical issues with his work, and that he has refused to take on requests from medical students, since doctors are responsible for people’s lives.

Crackdown

Universities have various measures to counter electronic fraud during lockdown, such as registering the IP address of an exam candidate’s device. But students find ways around the measures, for instance by using apps to hide the true origin of pictures or screenshots. The ‘helpers’ also have techniques for tricking older methods, such as plagiarism detection software: they use specialist apps that identify synonyms in texts and change them to avoid similarities.

Professor Abdelwahab has a different solution: “Since I know that my students might use helpers, I still insist that their work is submitted handwritten.”

Financial prosecutions

Yemen’s dire economic situation, and its turbulent political relationship with Saudi Arabia, has led to restrictions on financial transfers between the two countries. There are maximum limits on transfers, and a requirement to show the sources of funds deposited.

This means that student ‘helpers’ in Yemen have difficulty receiving money from their Saudi customers. Some ask relatives who are living in Saudi Arabia to take receipt of payments in their own bank accounts, then transfer several payments as a lump sum to Yemen.

Saudia Arabia is also a key prosecutor of the war in Yemen, where daily per capita income is less than a dollar and a half a day

Three of Saleh’s relatives in Saudi Arabia ended up being arrested as a result. “[They] were interrogated about the provenance of the money that was being transferred to and from their accounts, as the remittances reached 2600 Saudi rials ($690) a week.” One relative explained what the money was for. “They released him only upon his pledge to cease his activities and a warning that this constitutes an unlawful act.”

After the incident, Saleh stopped transferring money via his relatives in Saudi Arabia, fearing they might be arrested again and lose their modestly-paid jobs. Instead, he found a Saudi student who agreed to help him: Saudi citizens are subject to less scrutiny over financial transactions.

Jamal received money via the bank accounts of Yemeni friends, but when the size of the transfers increased, his friends were also arrested. “Recently a friend of mine was arrested after he received approximately 70,000 Saudi rials ($18,000) for myself and other helpers I know,” he said. “Fortunately for him, he had already withdrawn [most of the money] from the account. His money was frozen for 20 days following the interrogation.”

This growth market is underpinned by the huge wealth disparity between the neighbouring countries. Saudia Arabia is also a key prosecutor of the war in Yemen, where daily per capita income is less than a dollar and a half a day, according to the World Bank’s latest analysis. The sale of academic services is testament to a brain drain among Yemenis, in the absence of a quality education, and the availability of alternatives to preserve it.

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