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Challenges of dealing with cheating in universities

The latest decision by the Lagos State University (LASU) authorities to toughen the punishment for students, who engage in examination malpractices must be seen as commendable and reasonable. No highly regarded university would stand by and watch helplessly while students, acting alone or in collaboration with academic staff make a mess of the rules intended to promote academic integrity.

Examination malpractices tarnish an established institution’s academic reputation and diminish the standing of graduates of universities. In many cases, innocent students who did not engage in examination malpractice wear that badge of dishonour long after they have graduated from the institution. This is why universities must rise against cheating before, during or after examinations. Cheating is cheating. It does not matter whether the malpractice occurred before, during or after examinations.

The Sun reported on Tuesday, 10 January 2017, that the senate of the Lagos State University reviewed late last year the penalties imposed on students, who engage in examination malpractice as a way to discourage or stop the growing practice. In general, the institution increased most of the penalties, introduced five new measures, and retained 12 existing regulations.

According to The Sun, the new rules are uncompromising in intent and in practice. One of the new rules stipulates that a student, who is caught going into an examination hall with ready-made answer scripts would be banished from the university. The previous penalty was suspension for two semesters. Another penalty states that a student found inside an examination hall with pieces of paper, containing scribbled information that relates to an examination would be suspended for one semester. And yet another of the new rules states that a student, who is caught using mobile phones to answer or solve examination questions would be suspended for two semesters. Additionally, a student who destroys evidence of cheating during examination would be suspended for two semesters.

While these new rules and others have noble intentions, the practical test will be in how they are implemented. A law that cannot be enforced must be deemed useless. This is the challenge that confronts LASU authorities as they commit to rid the university of examination malpractices that have become the norm in many tertiary education institutions in Nigeria. Yet, it is important that the LASU conveyed the message to all students and staff that the university will not condone or support cheating of any kind. Other universities that have procrastinated for many years without setting down penalties against cheating must now rise to be counted.

I am mystified that many public universities in Nigeria have remained level-headed, as cases of examination malpractice by students and staff continues to rise. That laid-back attitude informs the growing culture of cheating that has pervaded universities, polytechnics, and secondary schools across the country.

Examination  malpractice is widespread in universities, polytechnics, secondary schools, and even in tests conducted by professional organisations. Various factors account for this bad behaviour. When students are raised to believe that hard work is unattainable and, therefore, a waste of their time, they will search for shorter routes to success. When students grow up with the understanding that people who do extremely well in life are people who engage in criminal behaviour or unlawful activities, no one should expect them to do the right thing during examination time.

Students can be fundamentally as good, bad, or specious, as the quality of upbringing they receive in their homes and in their tertiary education institutions. When students are regularly exposed to corrupt practices and other reprehensible types of behaviour, they have no choice but to ape what they see in their society.

When students look around and see that thieves are garlanded and respected, when they observe that kidnappers and drug peddlers are awarded chieftaincy titles and national honours, when they notice that fake pastors are worshipped and treated like fragile piece of china, they get the message that honesty, hard work, and accountability do not count in their society. What matters is the ability to make quick money through illegal means. No one asks where and how the rich made their money. What matters really is whether you are an affluent man or woman. Without money, without wealth, you are nobody. Society does not recognise you. No one respects you.

Confronted by these hopeless scenarios, students look up to crime, as the rapid ladder to attain the values respected by their society. The role models who parade the streets and marketplaces are criminals and corrupt politicians, who preach to everyone that the Kingdom of Heaven is right here on earth, where pimps, pickpockets, armed robbers, and other genres of criminals are celebrated and applauded.

Education standards have declined over the years and there are factors that account for these. They include but are not limited to underfunding of universities, lack of essential structures to support innovative teaching practices. We must include in the list a culture of indiscipline among teachers and students, our society’s poor perceptions of the value of university education, universities employing teachers without basic qualifications for teaching, and poorly equipped libraries, among many other factors. These are some of the obstacles that have hindered quality university education in Nigeria.

Examination misconduct, we must keep in mind, is not restricted to universities, polytechnics, and secondary schools. It manifests also in examinations conducted by professional organisations. In 2010, the Nigerian Law School was engulfed in a major scandal, following revelations that a question paper at the Bar final examination had been compromised. The Nigerian Law School, you must remember, is a distinguished institution that trains future lawyers, who will rise to become Senior Advocates of Nigeria (SAN), magistrates, high court judges and Supreme Court justices.

For an institution that has developed a reputation for unimpeded training of the best legal minds in the country, the shocking news that a question paper in the Bar final examination had leaked was the high point of astonishment. The Law School had built its reputation, over the years, on academic excellence. That image was shredded when reports of official investigations overseen by a committee of the Council of Legal Education showed that a paper on Corporate Law and Practice had been accessed by some students ahead of the official examination date.

There is definitely something in us all that encourages us to take short cuts to achieve what we did not work for. How does anyone explain that important institutions of our society that contribute to shaping the moral character of everyone have been besmirched.

It is not only university students, who engage in examination malpractice of sorts. In 2013 the University of Calabar (UNICAL) took strong measures to eliminate embarrassing cases of academic dishonesty committed by staff in the institution. In March of that year, the governing council of the institution imposed penalties on 15 academic staff members, who were found guilty of academic deception. Four staff members were dismissed outright for plagiarising other people’s works and claiming them to be theirs. Furthermore, one academic staff member was sacked for engaging in financial fraud. The Guardian of Saturday, 16 March 2013, reported that 10 staff members were downgraded because they “chose to publish their works in fake or cloned journals and proceeded to submit same and obtained promotion in the process.”

Within the university system, plagiarism or copying another person’s work, idea or words without acknowledgement is seen as a high crime. Academic staff who deliberately take the works of other people and submit them as if they were the original authors admit they are possessed of substandard intelligence. Plagiarism is so serious a crime it has destroyed the careers of many well-known people in various disciplines, including high profile politicians. For example, in 2011, German defence minister, Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, resigned his position after he was accused of plagiarising portions of his PhD thesis. Two years later in 2013, German education minister, Annette Schavan, was forced to resign after she was stripped of her PhD degree by the University of Düsseldorf, owing to evidence that some parts of her PhD thesis had been plagiarised.

By taking disciplinary action against its own staff, the University of Calabar demonstrated leadership among Nigerian universities in defence of academic integrity and in the fight against academic fraud.  Academic dishonesty is a form of cheating and must be uncovered and penalised. As shown in the case of UNICAL, some staff members used illegal and morally reprehensible means to advance their careers in the university. But UNICAL is not the only higher education institution in which academic staff attempted to defraud their employers. Cases of academic dishonesty exist in other Nigerian universities but they have not been handled with the serious punishment that befits the crime.

Our higher education system is failing fast. Unfortunately, many stakeholders do not show interest. Federal and State education ministry officials, and the National Universities Commission (NUC) remain unconcerned and pay little regard to the crisis in the higher education sector. In this suffocating environment, the unmitigated message must be that parents and students who aspire for quality university education must be prepared to pay for it. That is the price everyone must pay for electing a government that has relinquished its social obligations to the citizens.

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