Punishment Won’t Do, The Rot Runs Deeper

The term ‘cheating’ is pejorative and seen as undesirable. Any punitive measure to curb it is, therefore, viewed positively. The perpetrators of the crime are the persons who cheat and those who support him. Those who do not cheat are essentially seen as being honest and worthy of receiving the reward via, say, an exam, and vice-versa.

The Public Examinations (Prevention of Unfair Means) Bill, 2024, mentions “leakage of question paper or answer key”, “directly or indirectly assisting the candidate in any manner unauthorisedly in the public examination” and “tampering with the computer network or a computer resource or a computer system” as punishable offences done by a person, a group of persons or institution. This applies to school exams, college entrance tests, or competitive exams for government jobs.

Not The First Anti-Cheating Bill

Under the Public Examinations (Prevention of Unfair Means) Bill, only those who leaked exam papers or tampered with answer sheets by colluding with government officials will face up to 10 years in jail and a fine of ₹1 crore. This is not the first time a bill has been introduced to tackle the cheating menace. Over three decades ago, the Uttar Pradesh government, led by Kalyan Singh had also brought an anti-cheating ordinance in 1991. The bill sought to end mass cheating in schools and universities, making it a non-bailable offence. It also had a provision under which any student found cheating would be jailed.

The objective of the new Bill is to bring greater transparency, fairness and credibility to the public examination systems and to reassure the youth that their sincere and genuine efforts will be fairly rewarded. The Bill is aimed at effectively and legally deterring persons and organised groups or institutions that indulge in various unfair means and adversely impact the public examination systems for monetary or wrongful gains.

There’s Context To Cheating, Too

Here cheating, rather than being viewed as a social evil, a reflection of a deeper malaise in society, is seen as an act of individual doing that can be deterred by punishing those who engage in it. I see cheating as neither a moral or ethical issue nor a law-and-order problem. In fact, it reflects the nature of our education system in schools, colleges and the number of opportunities (higher education or jobs) available for young people.

For a moment, let’s go back to the school we studied in. It was either an indication of the availability of schools close to us, access to them or our parents’ buying capacity. What is of fundamental importance here is the multiple and layered structure of schools, both public and private, which matches the socio-economic locations of children. Thereby maintaining existing differences among people. The reason behind stating this is that where children study, whether they succeed or fail and eventually who they become in their adult lives is also not a fair deal.

Among many negative features of the Indian school system is the importance it gives to exam/result and the practice of rote memorisation. The textbooks occupy an overwhelming position in school and the knowledge of its content is what is expected from the student to secure high scores. Success in exams leads to admission in higher education institutions or jobs. In classrooms, therefore, children are constantly copying from either the textbook or the blackboard and during exams, from memory. The better a child can memorise verbatim, the better he is regarded to be. Class work, homework and exam work, all require the mundane activity of copying.

Exams As A Function Of Elimination

Most professional educators and the practising community of professionals have criticised terminal examinations, which seal students’ future based on his performance in just one exam’s score. Exams serve a very important function of elimination. They remove several students from the competitive race as it is seen by all to be a fair indicator of one’s ability and competence. This is because students competing with each other are regarded as being equal, but actually, may belong to very diverse backgrounds, which is reflected in homes they come from and the schools they go to. The irony is that the most unfair institution, i.e., exams, are considered to be fair.

However, the Italian philosopher Gramsci felt that there is merit in everyone writing the common exams and vying for common rewards. That was the only way a poor child could think of getting admission to a college or a job otherwise beyond him. This means that a poor student will have to slog doubly hard, but so be it, at least the scores helped to distinguish between the able poor and the non-able rich.

A Multi-Pronged Approach Is Needed

There are several reasons why students get the urge to cheat. So long as there is socio-economic inequality in society and an education system that further fuels this inequality, cheating will continue to be seen as a viable option to break the status quo. But there are also privileged students with all the support in life, both at their homes and in school or those with psychological tendencies/dispositions and they need to be handled differently. This article only focuses on one aspect of cheating, indicating thereby that this is a complex issue and requires discussion/reflection in a multipronged approach.

We can expect only students from similar backgrounds (home and school) to compete with each other and then deem it fair. One who has gone to a dysfunctional school and has limited economic, social and cultural capital, i.e., limited support from parents, cannot be compared to those that have been to a fancy school with adequate infrastructure and a wealth of resources. Before passing such a bill, the state needs to put its act together and provide equitable opportunities to everybody irrespective of socio-economic location. Till that time, cheating will continue to flourish, probably in changed forms.

(Disha Nawani is Professor, School of Education, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai, and Managing Editor, Contemporary Dialogue, SAGE)

Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author

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