This article originally appeared on VICE Germany.
COVID-19 has had a huge impact on how university students are taught, and how they’re examined, too. With regular access to campuses restricted over the last two years, institutions across the world switched to online exam systems. As a precautionary public health measure, it makes sense – but it’s also opened a whole new other can of worms.
This was certainly the case in Germany where students, away from the watchful eye of exam invigilators, have turned to eBay to find solutions to their academic problems. On the site, you can find your very own exam-ready ghostwriter, willing to knuckle down and study on your behalf – for a fee.
Cheating has become such a concern for British institutions that scholars have begun thinking about how to design exams that would make shortcuts impossible. For instance, a team of chemists at the University of Exeter is now trialling a system where a single class would be tested using 60 different computer-generated data sets, as reported by the sector-specific publication Times Higher Education.
These measures might seem extreme, but they’re not unfounded. During the pandemic, numerous so-called “essay mills” – websites offering students the chance to buy their way through a degree course – have popped up online. The Guardian reported that in 2021, the number of active sites of this kind in the UK alone rose from 881 to 932.
Maths student Hans, 23, and computer science student Jürgen, 26, who preferred not to share their real names with us for obvious reasons, have been profiting from the boom in the clandestine ghostwriting industry to make ends meet.
The pair’s methods are pretty simple. Once they’ve agreed on a fee with a student looking for help, they’re provided with the necessary university log-in accounts. From there, it is up to Jürgen, Hans, or one of the other exam-takers to, well, take the exam. If the student has to be present on camera, then messaging services like WhatsApp will be utilised to pass on both questions and answers.
VICE spoke to the duo about clients, cash and their chances of getting caught.
VICE: You write exams on behalf of other students. Are you geniuses or what?
Hans: We’re both very, very good at our subjects.
Jürgen: I’ve been a tutor at a university for four or five years now. I supervise study groups and help correct exam answers. At some point you’ve seen so many tests and assignments that you just know how to pass an exam.
How did you come up with the idea of developing this into a service?
Jürgen: I had a buddy who needed help with a maths exam. Over coffee, we went through the questions together. Then a guy we lived with asked if someone could help him with an academic problem. So Hans and I solved it for him.
And did he pay?
Jürgen: He transferred me €40 via PayPal shortly afterwards.
Hans: Later he approached us and asked if we wanted to do this more often – and for more money.
Doesn’t this leave you at risk of being prosecuted?
Jürgen: In Germany it isn’t written into any university’s rules that you’re not allowed to write answers for someone else, or have them written for you. This is true even for your final thesis or dissertation. It is only the person who hands in the papers themselves that is liable for prosecution. Obviously, though, we don’t want this to become public.
Jürgen: Universities have the right to expel students for bad behaviour.
How do you protect yourselves?
Jürgen: We use an anonymous email address, a phone number nobody else knows, and a PayPal that doesn’t run on our names.
Hans: It takes a lot of effort to find us. If the police wanted to, they’d need to get a search warrant for the people we work on the exams for. It is dubious that they’d actually want to go that far.
How cautious are your customers?
Hans: Most of them don't care at all, and they completely underestimate the risk. One of them gave me access to his university account: email, password, matriculation number, everything. Some send us money via their personal PayPal.
Where do you find your customers?
Hans: Go on eBay and there are hundreds of people looking for ghostwriters. We find them and write to them ourselves.
How much money do you make?
Hans: We only started last semester, in 2021. Our rate is €100 (almost £84) an hour.
Jürgen: I have earned about €6,000 (around £5,000) so far.
Which exams bring in the most money?
Jürgen: We often write papers for people studying at universities of applied sciences. They are usually very easy.
Hans: You can make €300 (£255) over breakfast. Traditional universities require much more work.
Who commissions you the most?
Hans: Students from business degrees. Business studies, economics and so on. Statistics and stochastics [a type of mathematical modelling] for economics, micro and macroeconomics. For them, the whole world seems to be up for sale.
Do you have regular customers who keep coming back?
Jürgen: One guy commissioned us last semester and then signed up for everything we could possibly do. When he realised that he didn't have to study anymore, he applied again for this semester.
That means people who can afford it are now able to easily buy their way through their degrees.
Hans: Sure. Only people with money can do this.
Jürgen: And it seems like it is often those who study economics.
This must be a concern for the universities, too. Don’t they try and stop it?
Jürgen: One university in West Germany passed around an informational brochure before an exam, and part of it dealt with ghostwriting. It stated that the university knew that ghostwriting existed, that it would not tolerate it, and that students would be punished if they hired someone. But that only works as a deterrent.
So there are no actual precautions in place?
Hans: Sometimes, you have to turn on your camera. When that happens we can help via WhatsApp. Nobody would notice us sending the answers to someone’s phone. Also, sometimes the answers are simply being sent around. Everyone who has friends and a cell phone can solve an exam together in a group chat.
What will you do when COVID restrictions lift and exams take place on campus again?
Hans: I don’t really mind. I don’t need the money. We are finishing our studies soon, then we’ll have real jobs anyway.
Jürgen: Maybe it’s actually good. We are helping people to get degrees they don’t deserve.
Hans: That’s something you quickly forget when you make €300 out of it.