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

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.

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