The lack of strict rules in UCD exam halls facilitates cheating, says one individual, who was paid to covertly sit papers in place of underperforming students. He talks to Paul Fennessy
“There was nothing ingenious in the plan we concocted. It was nothing like Ocean’s Eleven or anything,” says John*, who has sat exams on three separate occasions in the past two years on behalf of students that had been struggling with their course, including at least one case in which the individual had failed the paper previously.
Prior to the exams, a deal had been settled on whereby John had agreed upon what he deemed an “acceptable” sum of money, which was subject to him achieving the desired grades for the students in question. “I was pretty busy myself, because I had my own final exams as well,” he says in reference to his first attempt. “I wouldn’t have been willing to do it for cheap.
“Obviously I wasn’t in the same course as this student and they were different classes, but the subjects were related to subjects I was studying, so it wasn’t too much of a hassle to do those subjects.”
In his final year during the 2009 Christmas exams, John sat two exams in which he secured an A and an A+ grade respectively for the student. He also sat another exam for which John was only required to pass the subject. He never checked the actual result of this exam, but he says: “I assume I got an A+.
“It was a pretty easy module,” he continues. “I didn’t have to do any real work or anything for it, but I never actually talked to him subsequently. I think he’d failed the module maybe twice or something, so I was kind of worried it might look a bit suspicious.”
Despite acknowledging the considerable risk that this endeavour posed, John was never overly concerned that the course lecturer might act on such suspicious circumstances. “The lecturer probably could have done some research and thought ‘hang on, this student has failed the module a couple of times, then all of a sudden he got a very high percentage grade on it’.
“But it’s hard to investigate,” he says. “There are two sides to that coin. They’d really have to be sure, wouldn’t they? If someone makes allegations like that, it’s pretty powerful. And I would accept that people have failed exams and then studied really hard and done brilliant repeat papers.”
John also describes how he was approached to sit a paper for another student prior to the Christmas exams last year, but declined the offer on the grounds that he considered it an undue risk, given that he had taken the module previously.
“So let’s just say I was in Commerce and I was approached to do one of the Commerce papers the year after I’d left college. I wouldn’t have done the paper because I’d be sitting the paper and there’d be a lot of final-year Commerce students sitting it and they’d already know that I’d already done Commerce.
“Some people could easily complain, because as you know yourself, exams are quite a competitive environment. So it’s quite easy for a person to turn around and go: ‘Listen, I know for a fact that that person isn’t in this class’.
“So I wouldn’t risk doing a subject where I’d know people who are doing that subject. You can’t take the chance. In every bunch, there’s always going to be a few people who aren’t just gonna accept it and say: ‘Ah well, fair enough’.”
In the months leading up to the exam, John was given access to the student’s Blackboard course materials, so that he was able to study the course lecture notes. Moreover, he also had to ensure that the papers didn’t clash with his own exams.
In addition, on the first occasion, John recalls how he took a few further precautions to lessen his chances of being caught, as he admits to feeling “slightly apprehensive” about the situation. For example, he elected to learn off details such as “his address, his phone number, email – anything that could be asked – standard personal details”.
As a result of his preparation for such scenarios, John was able to avoid getting caught on the rare occasions in which his identity was questioned. “I didn’t have to show any ID. [I wrote] his name, the module code and his address on the attendance form they provide if you don’t have a student card.
“When the invigilator came around, I just said ‘listen, I’ve left my student card at home’. I just told them my student number, so they just marked them off the list and there wasn’t a hassle.”
John claims that the whole process did not overly stress him, while at the same time not feeling unaffected by it.
“I wasn’t panicking or anything, but I wouldn’t say I was completely calm. There’s risk in the sense that I could sit down at the desk, I didn’t know what people were in the class, and somebody could look at me and go: ‘Hey what are you doing in here. I didn’t think you were in this module.’
“Or else people could recognise me around the general exam area and ask ‘why isn’t anyone else from your class here’. I decided I’d get to the exam hall pretty early and just go in and put my head down on the desk until the exam actually started, so you don’t have to talk to anybody.”
People’s tendency to avoid vigorously questioning these types of suspicious-seeming situations is highlighted by one particular anecdote. He recalls how “I subsequently found out that a friend of a friend – I only knew her to see – I remember talking to her a few months later and she found out what had happened. She said she was wondering why I was at the exam. It just kind of struck her, as in: ‘I didn’t think he did this course.’”
Moreover, there was one occasion last year whereby John had virtually no other alternative than to own up to his misdemeanour – a relatively close friend whom he had known since his schooldays confronted him just prior to the exam.
“I just had to say it to him,” he says. “Obviously he didn’t care, but I just couldn’t give a plausible pretext when he fully knew that I was finished college.”
John also claims that “there are two or three people I know who have sat exams for other people,” and is unsurprised that cheating is viable, owing to UCD’s large student population.
“There are literally hundreds in the exam halls, so I can accept with the people trying to regulate the exams, it’s such a burden,” he says. “As the person who approached me to do the exam for him said: ‘It’s a big organisation, there’s obviously gonna be a few cracks in it which you’ll be able to overcome.’”
While John feels that UCD could do more to decrease the chances of similar circumstances arising in the future, he understands that it would be difficult to impose a stricter system without resorting to extreme measures.
“If the system was perfectly efficient, you wouldn’t be able to get away with it, so UCD do have to accept responsibility in that regard. But I can appreciate that it isn’t easy. It would be very difficult to design a fool-proof method, short of having a bouncer at the door, checking you off, getting your student card, saying you have to have your student card, matching it up,” he says, before adding: “Maybe they could cross reference things a bit more.”
Although John believes that the recently introduced €50 fine for students who forget to bring their student cards to exams is “a step in the right direction,” he feels it will not ultimately discourage people, like the student who approached him, from cheating.
“The fundamental issue underpinning how the whole cheating system works is the way that you can just say ‘oh sorry, I forgot my student card’,” he says. “I know it’s a very cynical thing to say, but at the very least UCD will make some money from it.
“But people are going to be willing to pay €50 and I suppose, in some sense, you can’t put a monetary value on a good grade. An A+ is worth a lot to some people. If it’s the difference between a 1:1 and a 2:1, €50 is insignificant at the end of the day.”
John claims that he is unlikely to ever cheat in an exam again, saying: “It’s probably not feasible and it’s unlikely to ever arise again based on my situation at the moment.” However, he adds: “That’s not to say if the price was right or the circumstances were right, I wouldn’t.”
While John was never reprimanded from his behaviour, he emphasises the other considerable drawbacks that the experience ultimately entails.
“I wouldn’t encourage it. I didn’t treat it lightly or anything, as there is a significant risk and obviously, that would weigh on your mind a lot. The consequences of getting caught are massive. I know I didn’t, but I’m pretty sure you’d get expelled. And it’s not good for your peace of mind, the worry, it’s hanging over you.”
* The name of the interviewee in this article has been changed for confidentiality purposes.