Is Cheating A Norm Now?

Faisal Bari

A STUDENT cheated on an examination in a colleague’s course. He was caught and his case was referred to the relevant committees for investigation and action. The family of the student started pestering the teacher of the course. Since I was head of the department, I told my colleague to ask the family to come to me if they had any issues with procedures.

The mother of the student came to meet me. She started off by saying that the student did not know what he was doing. I told her that our university made sure that all incoming students are told that we have zero tolerance for cheating and that all incoming students are given written and verbal warnings about this.

She then said that she had lost her husband very early and had been solely responsible for bringing up the young man and this charge would have a significant impact on the student’s career trajectory. I told her that since the matter was with the relevant committees, the student would have to make his case there for mitigating circumstances and/or leniency.

Half-hearted efforts in the form of more police at exam centres are not going to work.

The mother then went on to tell me that one of the student’s maternal uncle was a senior DMG officer while his paternal uncle was a senior army officer and if I did not help the student, it would have consequences for me. I told her that I would ignore the last bit of what she had said and that she should leave before things got more serious. As she was leaving she said: “Cheating is normal in Pakistan. Don’t you live in Pakistan?”

It does seem that there is a lot more acceptance of cheating in the education system today than was the case a couple of decades ago. All high-stakes examinations have a high incidence of cheating. Matriculation and intermediate examinations have become quite notorious for this. But even grade 5 and grade 8 examinations that Punjab takes are known to have a lot of cheating.

This year, the issue was highlighted in Sindh where the chief minister wanted the department of education to reduce or eliminate cheating. In the end, it seemed the department was pretty helpless in the face of the strong ‘mafias’ that have been formed to facilitate cheating.

Whenever examinations are a high-stakes affair where a lot depends on its outcome, the motivation to use all means, fair or unfair, increases. Matriculation and intermediate examinations shape the career and future of students ie they determine where students can get admission and which professions they can enter. It is no wonder students want to do well in these examinations.

In Punjab, the results for grade 5 and grade 8 examinations are used to grade teachers and schools. Not surprisingly, in many instances of cheating, it is the teachers and school administrations that are themselves involved in facilitating cheating.

If we want to challenge the norm, major changes will be needed. Half-hearted efforts in the form of more police at exam centres and random but very public raids alone are not going to work.

Our examination systems need to change. Instead of relying on exanimations conducted annually or at the end of the respective course, we will need to move to more frequent and formative assessments. These are not easy to conduct when a large number of students are involved, but for better assessments, lowering the stakes attached to a single examination and for getting better measures of student learning, the move to formative and more frequent assessments is very important.

We will need to change the nature of examinations as well. Instead of relying on asking questions that test memory and/or are sourced from a particular textbook, we need to move to questions that force students to think, argue, articulate and exhibit their critical thinking skills. We need to move to examinations that are curriculum- and not textbook-based. Several examinations that I sat for in my academic career allowed us to bring any number of books and other material with us. Such examinations are more difficult to set, but they do test student abilities better.

An examination question from a philosophy paper that I fondly remember was: “The trunk of an elephant looks like a snake. Discuss”. Such a question can be answered, legitimately, from a number of perspectives: perception, language, mind, reality/appearance, and biology. What is at stake is the quality of the argument that the candidate makes, and rote learning is of little help here.

We do need to make sure that the conduct of examinations makes cheating as difficult as practically possible. Random checks by third parties are a must. Teachers should not be the invigilators of their own students. Students who are caught cheating must be punished sufficiently to have some deterrent effect on others.

But all this will not be enough. We have to work on the values in our society as well. Our moral values and norms as a society have weakened over the last three to four decades. In some ways, this is a necessary counterpart to change in societies. We have, as a society, not tried to manage change and understand what it means for our values. How we have an impact here is a longer topic and we will come back to it another day.

Cheating might not be a ‘norm’ in our society yet, but it is close to being one. To challenge it and change the current equilibrium is not an easy task. A multipronged strategy is needed that looks not only at how we set exam papers, what we examine and how we conduct examinations, but also at societal values that are in the process of making cheating normal. One measure is hard enough to implement; to do it all at once seems well nigh impossible for us right now.

From the Dawn, Karachi, published June 2nd, 2017.

Rethinking Zoos


SUZI, the lone elephant in the Lahore Zoo died last week. She lived for only 30-odd years. Even if they have lived in captivity, elephants are expected to have a lifespan of about 50 years. Suzi died early.

For the last two and a half decades, Suzi was the star attraction at the Lahore Zoo. Children love elephants. Even adults do. And by the scores that would throng to see Suzi, it was clear she had a lot of admirers. But Suzi was alone. She had been the only elephant in the Lahore Zoo for the last 25 years or so. Without any other elephants to interact with, could she have been happy? Could her life have been better if she had had someone to live these years with? Or is human admiration and interaction enough for animals to have a good life while being in captivity?

The Islamabad Zoo had two elephants sometime ago. Then one of them died. The behaviour of the other changed significantly after the death of his partner. Zoo officials responded by chaining the surviving male elephant. It took a lot of effort on the part of activists and concerned citizens to secure more humane treatment for him. Companionship and interaction with one’s kind matter for most living things. After Suzi’s death, one of the Lahore Zoo administrators said that they would, from now on, only obtain elephants in pairs.

It is not just about elephants, of course. There have been many instances of deaths in our zoos, across Pakistan, where animals have died due to neglect, cruelty, poor treatment or just poor care. The care that we provide in our zoos leaves a lot of to be desired. Do animals get proper sized cages/spaces, is their food nutritious, and are their medical needs taken care of? For those animals that need it, are proper temperature controls available? Knowing all the problems public-sector departments have, it would be a miracle if zoos had proper services for the care of their inmates. We know how our public-sector educational and health institutions meant for Pakistan’s people are performing. Would our zoos be any different?

Immanuel Kant said: “He who is cruel to animals becomes hard also in his dealings with men. We can judge the heart of a man by his treatment of animals.” If humans are judged by this standard, given the way most of us treat animals in our zoos, around us and in our homes, we fall short.

Why do we need to cage animals and put them in zoos? I understand that people, especially children, derive some pleasure from watching animals, but is that sufficient reason for taking away the freedom of a living being? Would these animals not be happier in their natural habitat? There is plenty of evidence that shows animals do not like to live in captivity. So, why have zoos?

It is not the case that our zoos are research institutions where we conduct any work on understanding these animals and their lives so as to improve the lives of other beasts. Some people argue that zoos are safe environments for many of these animals and they would not survive if they had to live in their natural habitats. This too is a very tenuous argument. Clearly, zoos have not been made for the benefit of giving animals a safer environment: all zoos together have a minuscule proportion of animals of the total that exists. Zoos are also not for endangered species only. Most of the zoos in Pakistan, in fact, do not have any endangered species.

Even if we want to provide safer and more controlled environments for animals to survive and thrive in, cages seem to be a bad idea for doing that. We need to create more protected nature reserves, safari parks and so on. We need to protect our jungles and the environment in general so that animals can survive the human onslaught on nature. We need to create spaces that are for the benefit of animals. Zoos seem to be places that have been created for human pleasure and satisfaction and most of them have not been designed to be optimal environments for the animals we confine in them.

I have not invoked the issue of animal rights at all so far and have, purposefully, talked only of what is good for animals. But, the issue of rights is a serious one. Do we think animals have direct or derivative rights? If they do, and irrespective of whether these rights are direct or derivative, surely having the right not to be caged would be a part of any bill of rights. Clearly, humans should not be able to confine and cage animals just for their voyeuristic pleasure.

Most of the zoos that we have today were made a long time ago. Thinking, as to why we need zoos or why they might be good to have, dates back from that time too. But our thinking about how we can learn more about animals, about what is good for them and about animal rights has evolved a lot over the intervening period. We should have a dialogue on the need for having zoos again in our society.

Do we need zoos? If we do, what sort of zoos should we have? Are cages in the middle of the city, as is the case in Lahore, the right way to have a zoo or should we be thinking about nature reserves and safari parks? Just because we have zoos already is no reason to continue with them as they are. Suzi’s death, I hope, will trigger some debate on the issue in public as well as amongst policymakers. It should definitely happen before we get another elephant or a pair of elephants.

From the Dawn, Pakistan, published Friday 19th May, 2017.

Where We Stand


MASHAL Khan was murdered by a mob. The students were worked up into a frenzy, with the knowledge that they will harm Mashal, and then they were led to him and they killed him. The issue used to work students up was an alleged instance of blasphemy.

Blasphemy charges have been similarly misused before this incident too. But this was a particularly blatant and odious use of an emotive issue to settle scores and to get rid of a young person — all because, it seems, Mashal was asking awkward questions of the university administration.

The blasphemy law, religiously and legally right or not, has been misused many times now. The law needs to be changed. Even the unanimous resolution passed by the National Assembly has said that safeguards against the misuse of the law need to be built into the law itself. But that is another debate.

Mughees Butt (17) and Muneeb Butt (15) did not commit blasphemy. They were, falsely, accused of being robbers and then they too, in a very heinous, cruel and public way, were killed by a crowd in Sialkot in 2010.

In Mashal’s case, the size of the mob was too large for the police to control, while in the Mughees/Muneeb case, the police were present but chose to do nothing. In fact, in the latter instance, some of the policemen present joined the public in encouraging people to torture the two children.

The videos of both incidents are heartbreaking to watch. The sense of revulsion and sadness that one feels when watching human beings acting worse than depraved animals, is almost overwhelming. How can humans do this? How can our countrymen do this? Do these people not have to wake up the next day and live with their memories? What sort of moral/value structure allows a person to throw a stone with the intention of killing or injuring another? Which values give one the power to use sticks for breaking another person’s bones?

Clearly, it is not just religious issues that have led mobs to cruelty and to taking the law into their own hands. Mughees and Muneeb were not accused of blasphemy. A lot of violent protests, due to load-shedding, etc have nothing to do with religion either — though invoking a religious issue seems to be one of the easiest ways of working people into a frenzy, the recent case of violence at the University of Punjab being a good example.

It is not just the spontaneous reaction of crowds that we are dealing with. The creation and unleashing of mobs has been used in a premeditated manner as well. Those who wanted to target Mashal knew they were going to use a crowd. They ensured that instigators were around at the time. In the past, mosque loudspeakers have also been used to target individuals and communities. These come under premeditated action and are not just the spontaneous behaviour of a mob.

In some cases, the premeditation is not just about creating the frenzy and hoping that the crowd will then turn violent; it is, plain and simple, premeditated murder. Most recently, three women killed a person who was accused of blasphemy in 2004. These women waited 13 years for the person to return to Pakistan before they went to his house and shot him dead.

The ease with which situations escalate to violence in Pakistan should be a cause of deep concern for us. A road accident leads to a scuffle far too easily and we have seen plenty of them. People standing in a line to pay a bill: an altercation breaks out between a few people over who has bypassed another or not. Disagreements that could best be resolved through conversation, or at worst through recourse to law, degenerate into physical fights that, more often than not, turn deadly.

The key here seems to be that we, individually and collectively, do not feel that institutional responses can get us an adequate hearing. Only individual and personal responses can work. The threat of violence and actual violence is the strongest form of individual response. If a person has committed blasphemy, we feel the law may or may not punish the person, so we have to respond individually. When these individual actions get coordinated in a crowd, a mob results. But the response is still individual and individuated.

A road accident happens. We do not believe that the law will be able to help us. The stronger side feels that resorting to violence gives them a better way of dealing with the issue — even though, clearly, violence is not the route to justice and/or restitution! The response is individual.

If our institutional structures were stronger and were capable of delivering justice and fair outcomes, and here we are talking not only of the judiciary but of all institutions, especially those pertaining to law and order, would we have the same level of violence in society? Would disputes as easily or as frequently descend to violence and the need to take individual action?

But our institutions are weak and often ineffective. The dominant narrative of Pakistan is power. Violence is the most naked and destructive form of the exhibition of this narrative. Whether it is the state that makes people ‘disappear’, FIA officials beating passengers or individuals/crowds taking the law into their own hands, it is all about power and not about institutions and rules.

We should definitely change laws that are wrong and build safeguards against the misuse of laws. We should also change our education curriculum to bring in tolerance and do a lot of things that people are talking about right now. But the deeper work needs to be done at the level of institutional reform: building trust in institutions that deliver on fairness and justice might be the only way forward for us.

From the Dawn, Pakistan, published Saturday 22nd April, 2017

In Service of Power


TWO years ago, a friend and colleague, teaching at a US university, wrote to me asking if one of her doctoral students working on education issues in developing contexts could work on Pakistan and if I would be willing to guide her in her fieldwork. I thought that having a doctoral student look at leadership issues across gender would be good since there was little local research on this. So I said I would support the student.

The student decided to come to Pakistan. She asked me for a letter of support so she could apply for her visa. She submitted her visa application about four months prior to when she wanted to be in Pakistan.

One day I got a call from someone who said he worked for an ‘agency’ and wanted to come to interview me about some American ‘girl’ who had applied for a visa and who had a letter of support from me. I asked him to come by. Our conversation is worth reproducing.

After asking me about what I did, where I taught, what I taught, and if I had any suggestions about how to improve the economy, the gentleman came to the point. He asked me how well I knew the ‘Amreeki girl’. I gave him the context. He asked if she was connected to the CIA. “Not to the best of my knowledge,” I said. He asked me if I could vouch for her ‘good character’. I told him that I had no idea of what he meant by ‘good character’ but I had no reason to believe that the student had any character flaws that precluded her from doing doctoral work in education. He asked me as to why I was interested in getting the student here. “It is a good idea for advanced students to do research on and in Pakistan.” He did not seem convinced by my answer.

He wanted to know all the places the student would visit. I told him that I knew the districts and the schools she had in her sample and could share the list. But the gentleman wanted to know about all the places the student would visit in the evenings. I said I had no idea about that.

He asked me if I would ‘guarantee’ the safety of the student. I mentioned all the arrangements we were making for her accommodation, transport, help with logistics, and hiring of interpreter/research assistants. “This is all fine but do you guarantee her safety?” By this time I was a bit annoyed. So I said that when I cannot guarantee my own safety and you guys cannot guarantee the safety of citizens of the country, how can you ask me to ‘guarantee’ the safety of another? Again, the answer did not convince him.

He then asked me to provide documents about myself, the organisation I worked for, the kind of research we did, the partners we worked with and even copies of research papers we had written. And then, the final straw, he asked me where I lived and told me that he would come around and interview my father. I had had it by then. I told the gentleman to leave, to give whatever report he wanted to give about the issue but he would not be entertained at my home. He left.

The student did not receive any answer to her visa application for a long time and getting the not-too-subtle hint, decided to work on another country. She is now finishing her thesis write-up.

We have had an unknown number of CIA officials working in Pakistan and we have had, allegedly, Indian nationals working in sugar mills in the country. We had entire air bases given to Americans, had drones flying from there and, apparently, even had a programme where US citizens could come into Pakistan without clearances from Pakistani authorities. But when we want to have an academic come over for a conference or have a colleague come over for joint work, the hurdles in the name of national security are insurmountable.

Even doing research on our own is not easy. I work in education. Every time we have to do household surveys and/or school surveys, we have to get an umpteen number of letters of support and/or no-objection certificates (NOCs). If we want to do positional tagging, so that we can identify and revisit households or schools later, it opens up another Pandora’s box of NOC requirements. If I am going to state schools, it makes sense for me to have permission from the education department, but if I am going into households, I should only be required to have permission of the households in question. Why do I need the state’s permission to visit a citizen at her house? But we do: logic is not one of the strong points of a lot of these requirements.

The issue here, clearly, is power. Rules are made not to serve the larger interest; they are made to serve the powerful and strengthen their hold even further. Were agencies incompetent to the extent that they did not know CIA operatives were coming into Pakistan and some might still be here? I hope that is not the case. They knew. It was just that power interests were such that they wanted to allow these people to come into the country.

“Squeezed elbow room and shrinking leg space is the narrative of Pakistan in our times,” writes Harris Khalique in his new book Crimson Papers. He goes on to say: “It is about demanding a dignified physical space to live, a respectable economic space to earn a decent living, a free intellectual space to think, and an uninhibited artistic space to create. Together, it is all about political space.” So the question really is: can we imagine a different future?

From the Dawn, Pakistan, published Friday April 7th, 2017

Rules of Cohabitation

“THE car driver in front of me stopped suddenly, as did I, but the driver behind me was not able to. He hit my car pretty hard. I, as a result, bumped into the car in front of me.” This incident was narrated to me by a colleague.

“I anticipated fun and games and I was not disappointed,” he continued. “All of us got out of our cars to discuss what had happened. The car that had hit me had two young people in it. I found out later in the conversation that they were both university students. The two young men started off, as I expected, by accusing me of hitting the brakes too hard. For the next five minutes I tried to convince them that it was not my fault, and according to law and all norms I could think of, it was their fault: they were responsible for keeping a safe distance from the vehicle in front of them. But they refused to acknowledge that. Instead, they started to become abusive. Although a teacher, I felt this was no time to teach and preach. I told them that since they were not even willing to acknowledge their mistake, there was no point in taking the conversation further. They left after telling me what an awful person I was and how Pakistan was where it was because of people like me.

“After they left, I apologised to the driver of the car I had bumped. He said he was just a driver and was petrified that his employer would grill him. I offered to call his employer and smooth things over and also paid him to ensure that the few scratches that his car had sustained could be repaired at no cost to him.”

Our education, irrespective of level or type, does not inculcate empathy in our young people.
The above incident is just an illustration. The larger point I want to make is about the attitudes we, in general, have internalised and are internalising. Values are one aspect of being. Everyone has certain values, codes to live by and norms/rules that they have internalised. How and when these codes are invoked and become operational is another thing. Here our attitude and way of interacting with others matters a lot. This aspect, as to when we choose to invoke the principles we want to live by, is where we have major issues. As a teacher who deals with lots of young people all the time, I feel it is this aspect that even our education is failing to address adequately.

‘Putting oneself in another person’s shoes’ is one of the pre-requisites for being able to know the situation that the other person faces, their point of view and what the world looks like from their perspective, possibly even using their principles and values. Our education, irrespective of level or type, is failing to impart this aspect of being a person who lives in the company of others.

There was a scene in the movie Dead Poet’s Society where the teacher asks students to stand on the desk to get a different perspective from the ‘normal’ one they have while sitting at their desks. Sometimes I feel I have to resort to something similar to make my students appreciate issues of poverty and development that different people face in Pakistan. What does the world look like from the perspective of a child who goes to a madressah as opposed to a high-fee private school? All of these children are going to be citizens of one country. If they cannot understand each other and cannot appreciate each others’ perspective, we are doomed to be the kind of country we have become and are becoming.

A parent who him/herself is barely literate and has a low income, how does he/she ensure that his/her children get a good education and a decent opportunity at getting out of poverty? Public education is almost free. But the quality of education we are giving through our public schools, by and large, is quite poor. It might not be possible for a child, even if he/she survives in our public education system to complete matriculation, to either find a decent job or to have opportunities for going to good quality higher education institutions.

Can we understand the helplessness or lack of hope a parent or a child might feel in this situation? Here I am making the distinction between sympathy and empathy. We might feel sympathy or pity for a person and the situation they might be in, but empathy requires us to put ourselves in the place of the other person and understand their situation. The basis for good laws, rules, and norms is empathy and not sympathy.

Many systems of thought have formally or informally invoked notions of empathy to de-centre individuals and their specific concerns. Kant’s categorical imperative, Christianity’s demand to treat others in the way we ourselves want to be treated, Islam’s insistence on choosing for others what you choose for yourself, Hume’s insistence on community of humans, Adam Smith’s reliance on empathy and Rawls’ notion of the ‘veil of ignorance’ are all attempts at ensuring that humans give due importance to the idea of putting oneself in another’s shoes.

In a society that is becoming increasingly polarised, divided and unequal, children are getting more isolated from each other and especially from children from other economic and social classes, ethnicities, and religions. Schools/universities used to be ‘neutral’ spaces where children from across the spectrum could interact with each other but with access to schooling becoming dependent on the income of parents, with privatisation and liberalisation, this avenue, and other such avenues, have vanished. Reversing these trends is not going to be easy, though education will have to play a key role here, but that is a conversation for another time.

From the Dawn, Pakistan, published Friday, March 24th, 2017.

An Uncertain Career Path


ZUBAIR has been working as a salesperson at an upscale cosmetic and general supplies store in Islamabad for the last three years. His monthly salary, at Rs15,000, though above the minimum wage level set by the state, does not, by most recent calculations of living wage, constitute enough to provide even a basic standard of living for a family in an expensive city such as Islamabad.

Zubair manages to survive as he is still single and shares his living space with three other young men. He keeps his expenses at a minimum and sends whatever he saves to his parents who live in a village near Multan.

Zubair did his graduation from Bahauddin Zakariya University in Multan. He could not study more as he needed to support his family. His quest for a job brought him to Islamabad and the only job he has been able to find has been at this store.

I met Zubair at the store. After we had interacted a few times he asked me what I did, and when he found out that I was a teacher he started having longer conversations with me.

Though Zubair is a graduate, is very street-smart, has a keen mind and a good intellect, he has been very poorly educated and trained. His language skills, both Urdu and English, are quite poor and even though he studied economics for his Bachelor’s degree, his understanding of the subject is at best rudimentary. His knowledge is based almost totally on memorisation. Over the last three years since his graduation he has forgotten a lot of what he had memorised.

At one point in our conversations he asked for my help to find a better job. I told him that I, a teacher, was one of the least connected people in this society, but would do whatever was possible. I shared his resumé with many potential employers. I have not been able to find a better job for him thus far.

At some point, Zubair paid Rs40,000 out of his savings to someone who promised to get him a job in the UAE. The guy disappeared with the money. We have been trying to locate the guy and see if we can get the money back. But it does not look as if we will succeed.

Zubair wants to earn more. He wants a more satisfying career path. Eventually, he wants to get married and raise his own family, and wants his children to have a better life than him. These are all things that most of us want. He does not see a path that will allow him to do any of this.

Zubair’s predicament is not unique. Unemployment rates amongst young people in Pakistan are quite high and even higher amongst graduates. Government jobs have all but disappeared as we have liberalised, privatised, decentralised and right-sized enterprises. The pace of job creation has not been very high in the private sector either. Manufacturing has not been doing very well over the last decade or so and though the services sector has seen some expansion, most of the jobs in this sector, such as Zubair’s, do not offer decent wage and opportunities for an attractive career path. What can young people do?

There is a very strong inequity story embedded here too. Had Zubair’s parents been able to send Zubair to an elite, high-fee, private school and a better university here or abroad, had they been richer or more connected, Zubair would be working at a management-level job at a multinational or a local firm.

His education, especially his language skills, would have been much better. So would have been his confidence level. Clearly, intelligence endowment is not enough.

We did a small study earlier this year on career paths and returning to education. The fragmentation of our education system did not surprise us — we knew that already. But what did surprise us were the extent of the fragmentation and the dependence of returning to this fragmented system. The initial salary differential, on average, if one had studied at an elite English-medium school as opposed to a low-fee private or government school was more than 100 per cent. The career trajectories of people from these streams are very different — children from elite schools rise much faster in their respective organisations.

Where there is no doubt that the private provision of education has increased choices for parents and has expanded access as well, it has further fragmented an already fragmented and class-ridden society.

The lack of connections shows up in other ways too. Once when he was going home after work, around midnight, Zubair was stopped at a police picket and then detained. He was roughed up by a couple of police constables and taken to the thana. Luckily, he had his phone with him and he was able to make a call. He still had to spend four hours at the thana.

The state has a role to play in creating a more equitable society. It seems that the state in Pakistan has given up on this role almost completely. Social protection programmes such as BISP can play a role in ameliorating some of the worst forms of poverty; they cannot address or reverse the increasing fragmentation and inequity.

Can we offer any hope to young people in Pakistan? We talk a lot about the ‘demographic dividend’ and how the large number of young people in the country should be seen as an asset and not a liability. But given the right-wing economic ideologies of all political parties and government expenditure priorities, should the majority of young people have any hope? The honest answer seems to be an emphatic ‘no’.

From the Dawn, Pakistan, published Friday 16th December, 2016.