Every year in May, June and first week of July, Egypt lives through what could be termed ‘Thanawiya Amma crisis’.
The Thanawiya Amma certificate is the secondary school diploma that certifies a young man or woman as having successfully passed the Egyptian 12-year education programme. The score a student attains in the nationwide Thanawiya Amma examinations is used as the entrance qualification to that dream of every parent and student in Egypt: university.
Given that Egypt’s young population grows at a rate that far outstrips the growth in university places available for students, specifically in State universities where education is free of charge and students pay minimal fees to enrol, competition for high scores in Thanawiya Amma is fierce.
A 2015 study by Nivert Rizkallah cites the 2014 figures as reference and declares that, statistically, no more than 21 per cent of the students sitting for Thanawiya Amma exams find a place in the university or institution of their choice.
Others have to do with second or third choice, or with faculties or institutions they do not at all prefer but which have available places.
Predictably, the fierce competition places parents and students under a good deal of pressure, especially given that a university degree or its equivalent is mandatory for a good job in Egypt and, consequently, for social prestige. It even counts as an indispensible qualification for marriage.
Cheating galore This year saw some 563,000 students sit for Thanawiya Amma exams. The public mood was, as has become habitual, strained; hardly anyone in Egypt is without an immediate family member, relative or friend who is involved one way or the other in the Thanawiya Amma crisis. This year’s strain, however, was severely compounded by a new, modern variable: online cheating.
Cheating has never been new to exams, either in Egypt or in other countries. A notorious case was the wide-scale cheating in Egypt’s 1960 Thanawiya Amma, which obliged the Education Ministry to let students retake all their exams.
The same occurred this year in Algeria. On a lesser scale, however, cheating has been known to take place in certain village schools where security is lax and where powerful local families pay huge sums of money for their children to score in Thanawiya Amma through any crooked means. Cheating methods range from allowing students to carry with them written hints to answers of questions expected in the exam; permitting students a look at the answers written by brilliant students in the same classroom; leaking the questions to a teacher who can be bribed to write the correct answers and hand them over to the student in the examination room; or even dictating them by microphone from the school courtyard or beyond to the entire class or classes sitting for the exam.
There is no question that staggering bribes were paid in the process. Since such cheating may be limited to a specific locality, and is sometimes uncovered during the marking process, it does not have much of an effect nationwide.
This year, however, and perhaps inevitably, modern technology and the open skies were adeptly used for cheating.
Smart phones that make Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp and all sorts of social media one click away have been widely used by students to text the exam questions and pick the answers on the phone. Students have become adept at hiding these phones about their bodies so that they are not detected as they enter the exam room.
Worse, however, is that a number of exams were leaked and the answers to the question sheets posted online on specific pages a few hours before the exam.
The Education Ministry had to cancel and reschedule these papers. Given that the Thanawiya Amma nationwide exams are set, printed, and conducted under very tight security, the leak raised eyebrows since it indicated obvious insider sabotage.
Twelve Education Ministry officials, as well the administrators of the Facebook page that posted the leaks, were arrested and detained on account of the leak and were charged with intentionally harming public interest and funds.
The exam leak has undoubtedly placed the government in a critical corner. The question that obviously begs an answer is: “In whose interest is the leak and the rampant cheating?” Previous cheating was always done for the benefit of individuals sitting for the exam and aspiring to score highly but lacking the ability to do so.
This year, however, it was not so; it was a clear case of embarrassing the government. So was it some new kind of terrorism?
Back to Square One?
A Facebook account that posted the leaked exams was run by an individual who said he wished to shed light on corruption and inefficiency. Egypt’s education system has long been plagued by overcrowded classrooms and poorly trained teachers, forcing millions of students to rely on private tutoring. He said his goal was that Thanawiya Amma exams should cease to be the single key to enrolling in university.
He was thus echoing a demand that has been gaining ground in recent years, that entrance to university should rather be based on entrance exams.
Many educators see the argument as shiny on the surface but not any different in essence. If the problem is that the future destiny of a student hinges on a single set of exams—Thanawiya Amma—and discounts all other efforts of the student, it must be remembered that when the Education Ministry earlier this year suggested that a student should be additionally evaluated according to attendance and work performance throughout the year, parents rose in uproar and claimed that this opened the door to favouritism and bribes and gave teachers an authority they could abuse.
Those in favour of Thanawiya Amma say that the exams held at the same time nationwide and marked so that the students’ identity was anonymous constituted the fairest approach to evaluate students and eliminate corruption. Even though the government announced that it would respond in the future to demands that enrolment in university should be according to entrance exams, it must be remembered that the system of the Thanawiya Amma score being the only qualification to enter public universities was set in place in the 1950s to counter complaints of rampant corruption and favouritism in university entrance exams.
So would the turnaround simply mean returning to Square One?
Burying heads in the sand “We are facing a group of criminals who are challenging government institutions,” Education Ministry spokesman Bashir Hassan says.
“The challenge is not by a mere number of people, but by an organised group, such as the Muslim Brothers (MB) who stand most to gain by defaming the State.” Is Mr Hassan hinting that the MB have infiltrated the Education Ministry?
Security expert General Ali Zein al-Abidin, a professor at the Police Academy, says he believes that throwing the ball in the MB’s court is “burying our heads in “Since the Arab Spring uprising in January 2011 we have been suffering from a disastrous collective absence of conscience, deterioration of ethics and a corresponding rise in corruption that usually goes unpunished. I believe it is this that has caused the leak,” he says. “Even if we say there is a strong MB presence in the Education Ministry, then where is the security role in intelligence and control? Why are [the MB] allowed to trifle with people’s destinies and abuse national security?” Cheating is nothing new, General Zein al-Abidin says, but this year it has reached unprecedented levels.
“Who’s to blame?” he asks. “The Education Minister is the top executive in the ministry, and he should be called to account.” It takes 16 steps for an exam paper to reach a student.
No matter how secure the process, it is not difficult for someone to break the security chain at any of these steps.
There are modern ways to make sure exams are secure, and it should not be difficult to adopt any of them. In confirmation, Tarek Noureddin, who was assistant to former Education Minister
Mahmoud Abul-Nasr, gave a briefing about several such methods. Practical ideas Mr Noureddin says that the 2014 – 2030 strategy for pre-university education set by Dr Abul-Nasr included a number of programmes to improve and develop secondary school education and reform the exam system. Unfortunately, he says, subsequent education ministers disregarded that plan.
The plan contained ideas that would have pulled the carpet from under online cheating, Mr Noureddin explained.
Among these were coded exams which required a special printer and paper that was non-photographable. An attempt to take a photo of one of them with a cell phone camera would merely yield a black image; if captured using a flash it would simply be white. So it would be impossible to post exam papers online.
Decentralised printing, he adds, means that exams would be printed not in the central printshop, but on printers placed in every school in which the exams would be held.
The supervisor would be given a password which is only activated an hour before the exam, and also another password for an alternative exam—just in case of any trouble. The printer could only print the coded number of papers, and each paper would be headed with the student’s name and serial number.
If anyone attempted to capture the exam paper and upload it online, his or her name would appear on the paper.
Such solutions, Noureddin says, would save millions of pounds spent on moving exam papers from the central printer to various provinces in Egypt on military There was also a suggestion of assigning 50 per cent of the language grade to a written exam and 50 per cent to an oral test.
The oral test would mean students would be unable to cheat, and by the same time token their skill and qualification to use the language in everyday life would be measured.
Turning against the system A recent study by the Egyptian Centre for Economic and Social Rights (ECESR), and the Egyptian Centre for the Right to Education (ECRE) says that: “This year’s phenomenon of leaking exams reflects the deterioration and corruption inside the Education Ministry.
The ministry had to cancel exams and postpone others, which cost the State extra expenses. This is a waste of public money.”
The study goes on to point out that all the parties involved in cheating or exam leaks are direct beneficiaries of the education process; they are students, parents, teachers and staff at the Education Ministry.
If the direct beneficiaries are the ones attempting to bring down the system, it indicates that something is terribly wrong with the system.
“There may be pragmatic grounds for this…An inferior education budget; small salaries for teachers; outdated curricula; lack of training on modern teaching methods, giving precedence to getting into higher education rather than gaining knowledge, creativity and innovation; as well as the centralised decision-making that puts all the threads of the education process in the hands of one controller.”
All this generates a general dissatisfaction and frustration, the study says, which makes those who are party to the education system turn against it. Worse, there is no political or communal vision to create a healthy education system
“The issue of the leaked Thanawiya Amma exams is a real test for the current parliament which represents the Egyptian people and should put laws and legislation to improve the social and economic conditions of Egyptians and protect their Constitutional rights,” the study notes.
Will parliament take the side of the people and hold accountable those responsible for the crisis? Will it put in place legislation that works to improve the educational system? This remains to be seen.
Black comedy Despite the serious analyses by experts cited here, the final note on the Thanawiya Amma exams this year has bordered on black comedy.
With the exams over, the marking in process, and the Education Ministry preparing to announce the results, the Facebook account that calls itself Shawming Biyghashish Thanawiya Amma
(Shawming is posting Thanawiya Amma cheats) posted an offer to students to ‘improve’ their scores in exchange for a specified fee. The Education Minister hastened to reply this would be impossible since marking the exams was a very tightly secured process, to which Shawming retorted: “Those who were able to leak exams seven hours before the students sat for them would not find it difficult to penetrate your security.”
The demand for money may have backfired by acting as a wake-up call for many Facebook users; they suddenly saw ‘Shawming’ as a swindler and told him so ‘in his face’ so to speak, on his Facebook page. He reacted as though taking offence, and withdrew his offer to change the exam scores of whoever was willing to pay for it.
In a passionate post last Sunday he wrote: “So now I’m a swindler and thief and possessed with every bad trait! Well, you can consider my offer for better scores no longer valid. And just so that no one gets me wrong, all I did was help you.
But if this brings on insults and indignity, I will go back on it. As for the sums of money I demanded, they were to be given to those who would hack the Education Ministry’s websites; they had to be paid.”
MPs see the matter as confirmation that the leaking process was meant to shake the image of the State. “It’s a big fraud,” MP Haitham al-Hariri says.
13 July 2016