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Institutionalised cheating

Cheating is a widespread behavioural pattern among Egyptian students that goes often unpunished rendering the parties involved in education responsible

Ahmed attends public school in Zaqaziq, Sharqiya, and he wishes his teachers had stricter policies towards cheating.(DNE/ Sarah El Masry)
Ahmed attends public school in Zaqaziq, Sharqiya, and he wishes his teachers had stricter policies towards cheating.(DNE/ Sarah El Masry)

It is currently exam season in Egypt. Many students are not concerned about the best way to summarise chapters, draw mind maps and generally revise. They are planning to cheat. During exams, new ways of cheating are trialled and new cases are covered in the media, drawing a bleak picture of the country’s future. A country whose students are mostly cheaters. Daily News Egypt speaks to students from Egyptian schools and universities, both public and private, to assess the magnitude of problem and its consequences.


“One foot tap means you start cheating, two taps mean you should stop because the floor supervisor is on his way,” she said cautiously.

I was a 10-year-old girl attending a school run by nuns. Once a week we attended a class dedicated to conduct and ethics where we learnt about tolerance, honesty and integrity. This comment by the teacher supervising my final exam in primary school was my first educational trauma.

She was not a teacher at our school, but one called in to supervise final exams. Her request baffled me completely; “how on earth is this woman asking us to cheat during our final exam?” The details of what happened next have faded, but her words remained in my memory.

Years later, during my psychology final exam in secondary school, two supervisors stood aside and watched everyone in the examination room exchanging answers. Outraged, I asked them to stop the collective cheating, but it was in vain. Next, I threatened to file a complaint. That’s when the answer of one of the supervisors hit me. Hard. “If they don’t pass the exam, they won’t get into universities. We are just trying to help them, if you don’t cheat or give out answers, then we’ll make sure no one bothers you.” I was speechless, disgusted and enraged. I finished the exam and left school crying my heart out from the bitter experience of injustice.

Usually, before exams students study, but in Egypt, many students have a different plan in mind. They become innovative, not regarding how to study and prepare, but how to cheat. How to cheat creatively, without being caught, is what occupies many students during exam periods. No matter what school or university you are in, private or public, you’ll be surrounded by cheaters, from experts to first-timers. With every exam season in Egypt, stories from friends and relatives echo my own.

An endemic plague

The Boss Fee Wara’tak (mind your own paper) campaign to combat and raise awareness about cheating conducted a questionnaire on a randomised sample of 1314 university students. The results showed that 92.19% of the sample had cheated in an exam. Numbers for schools are not available, but if such results exist at university level (where cheating is supposed to be harder), then one can infer that at schools the problem is worse.

Ahmed, 12, is in the first year of preparatory school (equivalent to middle school). He goes to a public school in Al-Zaqaziq city in Sharqiya governorate (about an hour and half from Cairo). He started to cheat when he was 10. He is polite, but blunt about his technique. “I used to take a seat sandwiching myself between two of my friends and when I needed to double-check an answer, I asked them. I only seek to know the answer to a small question,” he says.

He says, remorsefully, “my parents tell me cheating is haram, forbidden, and every time I do it, I say it won’t happen again. I attempt to study harder so that I don’t resort to cheating, but do it again unintentionally.”

In front of a private school in Dokki, Giza stood a group of teenage girls. Among them is Sahar, a 16-year-old student doing International General Certificate of Secondary Education (IGCSE). Her mother always tells her that cheating is religiously haram, reciting prophet Muhammed’s hadith, saying, on cheating “he who cheats belongs not to us (ie not a true Muslim),”

She relates cheating to the type of curriculum and certificate.

“The problem is multi-faceted. Part of it has to do with personal manners, another has to do with exam supervisors [who are teachers] policies and reactions towards cheating and the final part is the curricula we study that depend mostly on memorisation and repetition.

“If you are supposed to memorise the whole book for one exam, then you will definitely cheat if you are the type who cannot memorise much. Even experiments at the laboratory are memorised a day or two before the practical exam,” she explains.

In Education in Egypt: Key Challenges published by the Chatham House, a London based NGO working on major international issues, problems and challenges of the Egyptian national education system are outlined. One of these challenges Sahar referred to. Instead of guiding students to think critically and engage with the material they study, “pedagogical methods and approaches to teaching… are generally steered towards memorization and rote-learning.” Such methods hurdle “long-term information retention” and neglect problem-solving and soft skills students need.

Sahar attributes cheating to how exams are conducted and the lax treatment cheaters receive in the Egyptian national system. “The nature of our timed-exams [in IGCSE] renders cheating impossible. Plus penalties for cheating are taken seriously. You could fail your exam if you’re caught red-handed.”

Next to Sahar is Dalia, a 17-year-old who is in her second year of Egyptian General Secondary Certificate (EGSC). She believes that 90% of her friends cheat, including herself. “When we have exams, teachers from public schools supervise examination rooms. Most of them allow cheating,” she says.

Though several processes of curriculum reform have taken place, the curriculum still remains a challenge taught by under qualified teachers. Undertrained and underpaid, teachers often resort to private tutoring. Accordingly they lack incentives to push for reform because it will affect their supplementary income from private tutoring.

Teachers who are on familiar terms with students from private tutoring may go easy on them when it comes to cheating. They may sympathise with students because they know about the parental pressure exerted on students to succeed. Or they may just be indifferent.

Dalia’s friend Rania, 16, doesn’t cheat. “Many people choose the easy way out, they cheat because they don’t want to tire themselves,” she says, in a way blaming Dalia indirectly for her lack of determination and susceptibility to peer pressure.

She believes that when cheaters are left unpunished, they end up corrupting the country.  “Why do you think Egypt is so corrupt? It’s because everyone cheats in one way or another at his or her work place. Some take bribes and some take credit for their colleagues’ work,” she says.

When creativity strikes

After chatting for a while, the girls call on their schoolmate Youssef who is in his second year of EGSC. The girls playfully introduce him as the source of all wisdom when it comes to cheating.

Nonchantly Youssef explains his techniques: “We write on the bottom of our shoes, we write on our legs and forearms and cover them with pants and shirts and sometimes we use more conventional methods like BlackBerrys.”

Sally, 20, is studying psychology at the Faculty of Art at Zaqaziq University. She explains how university students cheat: “Students are very creative here. Sometimes we write on napkins, fold them in our hands, put them on the desk and open them gradually in the exam. This trick gets caught rarely,” she says, proudly.

In June 2012 during the exams of the EGSC, Twitter users such as Wael Abbas decried that the social media website was being used for cheating by students during exams. He tweeted a picture that students used to spread the answers for an English test. Other activists on Twitter retweeted the picture, criticising the behaviour of the students and lamenting how a tool once used for furthering the aims of the revolution was now being used for cheating.

Sally reveals a fact most students seem to know about at Zaqaziq University. She says: “Cheat notes are becoming a business of their own. Two stationary stores outside of campus sell each cheat note for three pounds.” Approaching one of these stationary stores, the owner announced that all cheat notes were sold out. He says: “students write and buy them and we [the store] only photocopy them.”

A snapshot of the answers for the English test secondary school students leaked during their exam. (Photo via Twitter)
A snapshot of the answers for the English test secondary school students leaked during their exam. (Photo via Twitter)

Consequences and responsibility 

Dr Omnia Mohamed, an assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Neurology at Suez University, specialises in children psychiatry. Surrounded by cheaters herself as a student, she explains the factors impacting students and their behaviour:

“Children learn by observation and trial and error. At a young age, they observe for a while then start to analyse. That’s when the behaviours of parents and the environment surrounding the children become the primary shaper of their personalities. Through trial and error, children explore their limits. When they do something wrong, they need to be discouraged, when they do something right, they should be rewarded.

“When cheating is left without discouragement or deterrents (not physical), children think of it as a right behavioural pattern and thus it’s ok to repeat it.”

She points out that if the parents themselves cheat or lie in front of their children, it would only be natural for their children to mimic the same behaviour.

Mohamed also blames some parents for pushing their children to the edge. “Many parents care too much about grades and the end results their children reach, without rewarding the process their children go through. If your children study for an hour, you should reward them,” she adds.

In the Egyptian national educational system, three exams are crucial: the transitional exams between primary and preparatory school; between preparatory and secondary school; and between secondary and university. According to Education in Egypt: Key Challenges, grades carry huge importance to most Egyptian students. That’s because generally parents pressure their children to succeed academically.

Students carry an extra burden during these exams; to be the top of your class you need to get the highest score. The issue grows with final transitional exam to university level. Universities maintain minimum admission requirements and if a student fails to get high enough exam results, they will be forced to study something they do not like or to enroll in a private university where tuition fees are expensive. Hence parents get obsessive about their children getting good grades, regardless of what they learn. The act of learning is not rewarded, while high marks are.

The next party to blame is schools and teachers. Mohamed says: “Today we live in a society where values and ethics are in disarray. The state and its different institutions nurture cheating in one way or another. Teachers silent about cheaters are passive contributors and exam supervisors who explicitly aid students to cheat are setting cheating as the norm to the extent that non-cheaters are the exception.”

Mohamed identifies the possible identifies the ramifications of cheating as a behaviour. As she notes: “the logical progression from cheating is other forms of misconduct and corruption.” By breaching one norm others may be more easily broken and aggressiveness, bullying, stealing, fraud, nepotism, and plagiarism could follow.

A paper entitled Academic Dishonesty in Egypt published by the German University in Cairo, states that psychology studies in the 1990s showed that “cheating in the past could be a strong predictor of future cheating behavior and …there is correlation between past unethical behaviour in college and consequent unethical behaviour in the workplace.”

Mohamed concludes: “There is a link between cheating and bigger acts of corruption. We have to awaken the conscience of our society.”

Is there any resistance?

A student takes a Boos Fee Wara’tak questionnaire about cheating at Cairo University. (Photo courtesy of Boos Fee Wara’tak campaign)
A student takes a Boss Fee Wara’tak questionnaire about cheating at Cairo University. (Photo courtesy of Boss Fee Wara’tak campaign)

Despite how bleak the picture is, there are many out there who are willing to combat cheating.

Maissera El-Laithy, a founding member of Boss Fee Wara’tak, speaks about how the campaign started.

“We work in education, at schools and universities, so we have been exposed to cheating through our work. After we attended a course on proactivity, it inspired us to do the right thing no matter what unethical behaviours persisted in our environment. That’s when we decided to launch a campaign on the one thing we all experienced.”

Boss Fee Wara’tak started in 2008 as a small group in Cairo and today they have expanded outside of it to other governorates. The group has carried out questionnaires and focus group in universities, schools, and clubs to assess the problem and its dimensions.

“We did not approach people with a religious rhetoric but rather an adopted an ethical line because not everyone is moved by religion. We held events, stands, and discussions and tried to attract the youth as much as possible and the reception of the campaign gave us hope,” she says.

El-Laithy adds: “We were targeting cheaters mainly, but during our campaign we were surprised to find a group we did not target approach us; those who were hesitant to take a stand to oppose cheating. Those students told us they were waiting for a push.”

Recently, a girl in her second year of EGSC implemented Boss Fee Wara’tak in Sharqiya governorate, giving the campaign’s team motivation to continue fighting against the flow.

Professors, teachers and others who believe cheating is plaguing Egypt support Boss Fee Wara’tak’s activities, helping the campaign’s team host events in universities in schools to raise awareness among a bigger number of students.

There is no doubt that cheating is an ethical problem. However, to understand why Egyptian students, throughout all educational levels, cheat, one needs to examine the corrupt social environment students grow up in and the ill-structured educational system they are stuck with. Many parties are involved in both realms; the family at home, educational policy makers and teachers at school. Each carry part of the responsibility for institutionalising cheating and raising generations of cheaters.

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