The cheating syndrome

By Zubeida Mustafa

72-26-03-1993.ANine years ago, a fresh medical graduate who had been deeply perturbed by the unabashed resort to cheating by his fellow- students in the final professional MBBS examination requested me to write about it. His greatest concern was that doctors who became doctors by copying in exams and not on the strength of their knowledge would be a serious health hazard.

What began as a scourge in the medical colleges of Karachi is rampant in practically all examinations in Pakistan today. Only a few private institutions now manage to conduct examinations honestly. The magnitude of this problem is coming to be recognised, not so much because of a realisation that it is eating away at the base of our education system and undermining the credibility of our academic institutions, as on account of the outcry from the foreign aid donors.

What leaves no room for optimism, though, is the fact that many of those who alone are in a position to eliminate this evil have been its beneficiaries. Thus how can one really expect any improvement in the system when many of the university and college teachers who conduct examinations and the bureaucrats in the Education Department who formulate policies could be holding the positions that they do by virtue of their having themselves had recourse to unfair means in examinations.

The fact is that in the last few years the cheating virus has found its way into the universities and the civil services exams as well. What is even more disquieting is that those who are expected to reform the system have failed to understand the dynamic of the cheating syndrome. Hence the bizarre strategies that are being suggested. The Prime Minister has been speaking of taking drastic measures against those caught resorting to malpractices, such as trying them in speedy trial courts.

The Masood Nabi Nur Commission appointed by the Punjab government to evaluate the examination system and the eradication of malpractices suggested severe and exemplary punishment to cheaters. Recently the education authorities in Punjab even proceeded to disqualify 6000 students who resorted to malpractices in their examinations — though one cannot be too sure that they have not already used their connections to get the cases against them withdrawn.

But will such ad hoc measures, even if they are very harsh, by themselves help restore credibility to the examinations conducted in the country?

Given the fact that every sector of national life is being seriously eroded as unqualified graduates, engineers, doctors, administrators and other professionals enter the mainstream of the economy, administration and the health and education sectors, the need to tackle the problem of cheating in examinations needs to be addressed in ‘earnest. With the large majority of the students who pass out of our schools, colleges and universities not academically fit for the degree or certificate they have obtained by clearing their examinations by fraudulent methods the country is heading for total collapse

The blame for this phenomenon is placed largely on the examination system which is not a true test of a candidate’s intellect, creativity, academic ability or knowledge. But one can well ask, was our testing method ever an accurate yardstick of a student’s scholarship and creative thinking? Yet previously the cheaters were the exception to the rule. By and large most students attempted to solve their question papers to the best of their ability. The few who did use unfair means were invariably caught and debarred.

The rise in the incidence of cheating in examinations points to two basic facts of life in Pakistan. First, it is.a manifestation of the process of disintegration of the moral fibre of Pakistani society. If the norm is for a customs officer to accept bribe to exempt some goods from the duty that must lawfully be levied, for an income tax officer to accept illegal gratification to help a businessman evade taxes, for an MNA to obtain licenses and bank loans by virtue of his clout, or for a policeman to use his gun to commit dacoity, what is so unusual about a student who cheats in his examinations? All of these are cases of people seeking the easy way to material advancement without any regard for morality and honesty.

Be that as it may, corruption should not be condoned in any sector, including examinations. But cheating in exams is symbolic of something more: the erosion of our education system and its irrelevance to the needs of the people. Since the valueless degrees are linked to the limited employment market, the paper chase and not the acquisition of knowledge has become indispensable.

One must commend the authorities in the Punjab for at least showing more concern at the erosion of the education system which is signified by the cheating syndrome. Whether they will succeed in finding an answer to the problem is not so certain. The province was the first to set up a commission to look into the malpractices in examinations. The Masood Nabi Nur Commission has come out with a report that is interesting and instructive but will not take us far.

One of the most damaging aspects of our examination methods it has identified is: exams have become trendsetters for classroom instruction and home studies. Since schools and colleges teach not to impart knowledge but only to guide their pupils in passing the Board and University examinations the standard of education has gone down.

The Commission comes out with imaginative testing strategies, including a model question paper, as well as other recommendations to instil discipline in the students, such as holding of Zuhr prayers in school and the introduction of a two-year compulsory military draft for all students of 17 years of age.
Methods such as changing over to the objective type of questions, introducing mechanisation in issuing roll numbers and compilation of results, check on the character of paper setters and invigilators, etc will help reduce examination malpractices to an extent only. Many of them have been tried before and have been found to be impracticable in our circumstances. Moreover, it needs to be stressed that if the underlying causes remain unchanged, the candidates will find novel methods to get round the new restrictions.

While recommendations to eliminate cheating in the examination halls and to check examiners, paper setters and result compilers from leaking question papers, giving wrong marks or changing the marks of candidates should be welcome, they can at best be stop-gap measures. What is essential is that the entire education system is revamped so that it becomes a compulsion for the students to study and acquire knowledge rather than obtain a paper degree by fraudulent means.

There is need to vitalise education and link it to the functional needs of society. A glance at our shoddy textbooks which have no bearing on the students and the life they lead is enough to convince anyone of the futility of sending a child to school. Added to this is the factor of corruption and ineptitude of many of the teachers which compounds the situation. A product of the same system, they fail to inspire their pupils or motivate them to acquire knowledge. They exert no moral influence on the young minds, hence they cannot be expected to serve as a force in eliminating cheating.

It is time the citizens took matters into their own hands. Obviously the government’s roie is basic because as the controlling authority it alone can implement the changes which are perceived to be necessary. But citizens, especially the parents of children who are suffering from the rot in the education sector, should come forward to form pressure groups. A concerned father suggests that a citizens’ committee on the pattern of the Citizens- Police Liaison Committee should be set up to make the education authorities accountable for their policies.

The first step it would be required to take would be to tackle the cheating syndrome but this should be in the wider context of education reforms. Otherwise not much would be achieved. The committee should not operate as a parallel education authority. It should seek to get the reforms formulated and implemented through the existing education authorities, heads of institutions and the teachers’ bodies, putting pressure on them to act where action is necessary.

For instance, a beginning could be made by having the curricula redesigned and the textbooks rewritten accordingly. This would obviously apply to the teachers training courses too. But it would take years before enough teachers are produced who are motivated enough and trained in the new teaching methodologies to create an impact on the.existing system. The country cannot afford to wait that long. Hence in the meantime, crash courses and workshops to reorient our teaching methods should be devised. Thus in-service training of the teachers should be made compulsory so that the beginnings of change become perceptible. The stage has been reached where parents and the public have begun to show concern. This concern should now be channelled into tangible action.

A student speaks

“I did not cheat in my last examinations. But I was one of the few exceptions — one of the five out of 275 students in my class. But I can tell you that it was very frustrating being scrupulously honest because I got no immediate rewards for my integrity.

“In order not to cheat I had to study and work hard. That was something I was not really expected to do. For instance, I remember I really slogged over my journal to make it perfect. When I went for my practical examination, the examiner could not even be bothered to look at the journal. He just marked me . without as much as opening the journal. I felt badly let down that he did not even want to see my work.

“Even though I did not cheat I can quite well understand why my colleagues cheat. Many of our teachers are hopeless. What is worse they do not want to take their classes. You will not believe, we did not have a single lecture in some of our subjects. When we complained, no one would listen. How would you expect the students who have not been taught anything not to cheat. “As for the moral aspect, I think they couldn’t care less. Since no teacher is a role model, the students are not motivated to be honest. Besides, many of the teachers are so dishonest themselves that they are not on a moral highground from where they can ask the students not to cheat.

“I admit that the students are also at fault. They don’t attend classes, which would be discouraging for the rare teacher who wants to teach. The student parties create problems of indiscipline and terrorise the teachers as well as the students. That gives the teachers a pretext not to teach. It is a vicious cycle which will have to be broken somehow.

“The whole system is corrupt. I didn’t cheat because I think one can criticise others only if one has been honest oneself. I don’t want to be a part of the system which I want to change. For that I tried to keep myself out of it. I felt extremely isolated. But now I can point out what is wrong, and my moral position is strong.”

Source: Dawn 26 March 1993