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Looking beyond the Sierra Leone Law School examination malpractice saga

By Rashid Dumbuya Esq.

Just recently, I heard and read a shocking public notice alleged to have been released by the Council of Legal Education, the governing authority for the conduct of legal education in Sierra Leone, nullifying the results of the 2012/2013 bar final exams and calling those former candidates to return their certificates since a special investigation report has revealed that massive fraud and examination malpractices took place during the conduct of the 2012/2013 bar final exams.

 Apparently, this recommendation is the outcome of a special committee that was set up by the Council of Legal Education to investigate complaints made by a handful of students about incessant malpractices and mal-administration within the Sierra Leone Law School. The public notice went on to certify 15 candidates out of the 70 or more students that were called to the bar as the genuine ones to have passed the examinations. This breaking news comes in at a time when the ‘call ceremony’ had already taken place over four months ago with candidates taking their oath publicly and jubilating over their new found career path. Certainly, this decision, if sustained, would not only be devastating but will also be far and wide reaching in effects and consequences.

I was called to the Bar in Sierra Leone in 2010 and took the second position out of a class of 52. Was I supposed to have come first? Well, I don’t really know and please don’t ask me either because this is not what my article is advocating about. And because the law school saga is currently under investigation, I will also restrain myself from commenting on it in this piece and focus broadly on cheating and academic dishonesty in higher institutions of learning in Sierra Leone. In this article, I tried to objectively discuss why students cheat, the conspirators of cheating, the consequences of cheating and what can stakeholders do to remedy the situation.

Cheating and academic dishonesty are an increasing problem in higher institutions of learning in Sierra Leone. Psychologists and sociologists have applied theories of deviant behaviour in order to understand why students cheat but have failed to fully comprehend the underlying motivations. However, cheating is no longer a deviant behaviour; it has now become a normal behaviour in the academic world; the rule rather than the exception. This change poses a significant challenge for those who seek to establish academic integrity in a school environment especially when integrity in examinations is no longer considered as ‘the vogue’ by contemporary day student population.

But why do students cheat in examinations?

Fundamentally, cheating offers an easy way out.  Cheaters usually say, why bother studying hard and doing all those revisions, case summaries, case analysis and cramming if there is a simple way out there to beat the system and get your pass marks without going through all that hassle? In this sense, you will agree with me that expediency is a major reason for cheating.

The lack of clarity in a lesson, perceived lack of relevance, and too few tests offered in a grading period are also strong reasons why a lot of students cheat in examinations. When for instance, a module is difficult to understand or the lecturer too strict in his lecture approach and unclear to the students, it becomes increasingly appetitive for students to resort to cheating in such a paper because of their lack of understanding of the particular subject or module.

Without wishing to appear to be blaming teachers, it is necessary to point out that, the way some lecturers present their curricula and the type of assessments that they offer can influence cheating behaviour as well. To place 100 % or 80% on the exams paper and 20% or in some cases no marks at all on continuous assessment may actually provoke some students to go out of their way and do heinous activities to acquire a pass in the exams given the high proportion of marks being allocated. It is in a bid to circumvent this situation that most universities in Europe have preferred to put less emphasis on exams (30%) and more emphasis on continuous assessment (70%) which involves research work, class presentations, debates, field trips, simulation exercises etc. In Africa however, it is the other way round. Little wonder our predicament.

Also, because students live in a world where they see cheaters celebrated and the faithful people disdained and ridiculed by the society, why shouldn’t they think it’s OK to cheat?

Furthermore, students also cheat because they are fearful, because they have not managed their time well, and because they often believe that the act of cheating really doesn’t matter (or that no one will ever know) in the artificial world of academia.

Increasingly, students also believe that “everyone does it” and if they don’t cheat they’ll be behind either for college admissions or graduation or even in the search for future jobs than those who do.

Cheating, many believe also, levels the playing field in a competitive world where only the academic gurus have a fairer chance of the bite on the cake.  Hence, in the race to get ahead, cheating then becomes an unwritten rule of the game.

In addition to the above, the following factors also serve as impetus for the occurrence of exam malpractice and cheating during examinations:

1. Unstable school calendar

2. Inadequate notice to examination

3. Improper structure of exam policy on malpractice

4. Inadequate facilities for exam encourages students to cheat

5. Romantic collaboration between staff and students

6. Much focus on cognitive assessment

7. Inadequate monitoring of lecturers activities

8. Inadequate concern to students’ welfare and activities.

There are also lecturer related causes that set the stage for exams malpractice and cheating:

1. Poor attendance to lectures

2. High handedness by lecturers

3. Use of poor lecture methods

4. Frequent strike actions

5. Inadequate teacher- students’ interaction

6. Sexual harassment by lecturers

7. Using students to mark students scripts

8. Extortion of money from students by lecturers.

Who are the conspirators of exam malpractices?

In most cases where exams malpractices have occurred, students have been considered as the only culprits but beyond the hidden veil however lies a conglomerate of actors that usually perpetuate the joint criminal enterprise. Chief amongst them include the lecturers, the lecturer’s secretaries and clerks, the college or school administration, the secretaries in such administrations and the invigilators of the respective papers during the examination.  I will illustrate in practical terms how the conspiracy chain works given my 12 years’ experience in pursuit of tertiary education and my little experience as a lecturer.

First, the teacher/lecturer privately draws up his questions. If he is morally deficient, the paper may reach the students directly (most times it is given to ladies for sexual pleasure and considerations) without the knowledge of any of the other conspirators in the fraud chain. Where however the lecture is a man of high moral standing and integrity but he is unfortunately computer deficient, the Secretary takes over the typing of the questions and by this way connives with the clerk to disclose the questions to the students usually for financial considerations.

If the lecturer happens to be religious and computer literate, he will type his questions himself but since he would have to, as policy requires, tender his questions to the administration usually for review and for reference purposes, there is great possibility for sell-out to take place.  If it happens that the administration is one that is morally deficient and lacking in integrity checks, then through an administration staff, students may access the exams questions usually at a financial consideration.

Where due diligence has however been exercised by the administration and yet cases of exams malpractices occur, then it may be expedient to fall on the invigilators who were assigned to watch over the students while they sit their examination. It is certainly obvious that some conspiracy might have taken place during the examination.

So whenever we hear issues of exams malpractices, let us not be quick to fall on just the students alone but also consider the bigger picture and other conspirators behind the scenes fuelling such acts in the society. Examination malpractice is more of a systemic problem rather than an individualistic problem and unless we endeavour to address it from its roots and bring the joint criminal enterprise to book, we may not succeed in eroding it from the society.

What are the consequences of cheating in an exams?

The type and severity of punishment one might receive for cheating in an exams varies depending on the teacher and the school academic dishonesty policies. A teacher may give the student a failing grade on the exam, or fail him/her for the entire course. Depending on the school’s policies, cheaters may have to appear before an academic standards committee, which will decide further punishment, such as expulsion or rustication if necessary.

If one is expelled or dismissed from high school or college because of exams cheating, it makes it more difficult to get into colleges and find work. College and job applications often ask if you were ever fired or expelled, and they may also require proof of one’s academic history. If one wants to pursue a degree after being dismissed or expelled, one will have to start all over again. One may even be asked to take special classes at a community college to re-establish his or her academic integrity before larger colleges will accept him/her.

Furthermore, it smears your personal integrity and reputation as well as that of your family and friends. The stigmatisation that also comes along with it can be very frustrating.

Even where one gets away with cheating, there is a still a great deal of consequences that one might suffer later on. You may not have learnt the information the exam was testing. If you’re in a class that builds on previous information, cheating will make it difficult to understand concepts presented later. Falling behind will make it more tempting to cheat, and the more often one cheats, the higher the chances are that one will get caught. What one sees as a short-term solution can definitely have long-term repercussions.

What can stakeholders do to remedy the situation?

To the education/ administrative authorities

Stress the Importance of Integrity to the Learning process. Honest work builds self-esteem, knowledge, and skills. In contrast, cheaters don’t learn, they undermine the quality of education been provided, and they devalue the awarding bodies reputation and the degrees they confer.

Establish an Academic Integrity Policy and highlight the importance of academic honesty in class and in hand-outs; and remind students of the policy before exams and the consequences that may follow when breached.

The following attitude must be discouraged. Poor question setting, allotting less time to an examination, testing students in areas where they are not taught, awarding of unmerited grades, error of calculation of marks, misplacement of examination scripts and allocation of scores to students at will. All these threaten the security of examinations and must therefore be nipped in the bud.

Poor examination planning and logistics should also be addressed. This include providing unsuitable rooms, hall or examination centres resulting into crammed venues, haphazard sitting arrangements, loss of adequate control over the examinees, insufficient number of invigilators leading to overworking the few and poor invigilation, shortage of question papers and other examination materials. Often time’s students and candidates do not know their examination numbers and centres until the day of examination. These anomalies and lapses create the platform for cheating in examination.

 To the government

The political will and ability to fund education institutions properly should be demonstrated by the government. The dwindling funding of the education sector is a cardinal precursor to examination malpractice. Where academic institutions are ill equipped and academic staff members are underpaid, the opportunities for corruption may be greater.

 To the parents

The cooperation of parents with the school makes for success in every education endeavour be it student learning, discipline, governance, and good examination management. Parents must endeavour to inculcate good etiquette and moral behaviour on their children especially with respect to values such as honesty and integrity in their school work and service to humanity.

 To the teachers and lecturers

Developing new skills and learning methods on the communication of materials and knowledge to the class. This gives students/learners confidence to face examination as opposed to when they feel inadequate and desperate to pass by hook or crook.

Maintain and enforce the integrity of the examination process. The teacher is a critical element in the education enterprise. They do not only teach but are also examination administrators, invigilators, and supervisors as well. It is therefore their professional role to maintain the sanctity of examinations.

Lecturer should set the questions in line with instructional objectives and the content covered during the lecture period and acquaint students/learners with examination code of conduct and ethics of their institutions. They should also be fair to all students and desist from compromising the integrity of examination by receiving gratification from students, whether in cash or in kind.

 To all students

Model your life on integrity, no matter what the cost may be. Fear God and always pursue honest work. It is better to fail honestly than to succeed dishonestly. It’s just a matter of time, dishonest success will never last neither will it be impactful and beneficial to others. Aside this, the conscience of dishonest people shall never be free of guilt.

 Conclusion

The decision for candidates of the 2012/2013 law school year (save 15) to hand in back their bar certificates has been made already by the Council of Legal Education. Certainly, if this decision is sustained, it may pose serious ramifications not only with respect to the oath these students have taken but more so for the mere fact that some of the affected students are foreigners who had already returned to their respective countries since the close of the call ceremony in November 2013. There are many questions that are yet to be answered as the law school saga continues to unfold…. What will be the fate of the foreign students who had already left the jurisdiction with their certificates? Could this public notice warrant their return? Or could it police them in their respective countries?  Have the affected students been assured of their right to access and verify their scripts themselves in order to prove their innocence? Or better still can an independent body of examiners be allowed to review the scripts again for further corroboration? Also, would it be expedient for further investigations into results of past students who had gone through the bar exams in earlier years to be made in order to certify merit given all the discrepancies that have unfolded? ….the list goes on…..

No doubt, the Law school saga is indeed a total mess for the reputation of the Bar and the legal profession in Sierra Leone. And we shall have with us for a very long time this ugly history to humble us whenever we call ourselves ‘learned colleagues’ within the public domain. However, on the other hand, the Law School episode provides an opportunity for a complete overhauling of the administration, teaching curriculum, academic staff as well as the grading system in not only the Sierra Leone Law School but other higher institutions of learning as well. But whether this opportunity will be ‘maximized’ or will become another ‘missed chance’ is an issue that only ‘Mr History’ will be able to tell.

*All Rights Reserved.

Rashid Dumbuya is an International Human Rights Lawyer and a practicing Barrister and Solicitor from the Republic of Sierra Leone. He holds a Bachelor of Laws honours degree as well as a Masters of Laws degree in International Human Rights Law from the Centre for Human Rights University of Pretoria, South Africa. He is currently an LLM candidate pursuing Petroleum Law and Policy at the University of Dundee, Scotland, United Kingdom.