Question paper leaks are spreading like a disease in Bangladesh. Syed Manzoorul Islam, a retired professor of Dhaka University, who currently teaches at ULAB and is a member of the board of trustees of Transparency International Bangladesh, talks to Badiuzzaman Bay of The Daily Star about the factors leading to question paper leaks, existing methods of examination, and the reforms that are needed within the education system.
Question papers were leaked in the past also but the frequency with which it is happening now is unprecedented. What led to this situation?
There are several reasons. First, education here has become a commodity. It is no longer seen as a means of enlightening an individual. The society has lost sight of the true purpose of education. Most families today consider education more as a means of ensuring entry into the job market than an undertaking that makes enlightened and ethical citizens. This commodification of education has led to the creation of several markets, including one for giving private tuition. The tuition/coaching centres have thus emerged as substitutes for schools and colleges.
The second reason involves teachers who are not paid as much as they should be. As a result, these underpaid teachers struggle to make their ends meet, which forces them to find an alternative source of income by providing tuition. Some teachers, however, also intentionally create the gaps so that parents are forced to send their children to tuition houses.
The third reason is the endemic corruption in our country. The education sector, unfortunately, is one of the most corrupt. Question paper leakage is just a visible manifestation of that corruption and a malfunctioning education system. It's a business that fetches millions. That's why it's unstoppable.
The fourth reason is our emphasis on examinations, as if the most important duty of a teacher is to prepare the students for an exam. This emphasis has promoted rote learning and cutting of corners, like copying. If the students were prepared to derive the full benefits of a well-rounded education, the emphasis would have been different.
And the last factor, a quite recent one, is the addition of two more public exams in the school system—class V and class VIII ending examinations—which are completely unnecessary. These exams are instilling a sort of grade craving in the students at an early age, which has lasting adverse effects.
The education minister has blamed the recurrence of question paper leaks on teachers before admitting failure to find the root of the crisis. Do you think there is any merit in his allegation?
It's really sad that teachers alone are put in the crosshairs. The teachers may be a part of the whole set-up, but they're not its biggest actors. The biggest actors are the syndicates and vested interest groups. Whether the government admits it or not, the education sector has many such groups—ranging from the one operated by the coaching centres, which is very powerful because they earn something like 50,000 crores of taka every year, to the ones within the ministry and different agencies of the government. In a recent report on the National Curriculum and Textbook Board (NCTB), the Transparency International Bangladesh states that the organisation has “institutionalised corruption.” Now, these are the areas the government should investigate, instead of blaming only one part of the problem.
You talked about rote learning being a contributing factor to question paper leaks. Is there any relation between rote learning and what has come to be known as “short suggestion”?
The thing is, our education system is based mostly on rote learning. The prevalence of this practice is partly due to a lack of direction. The country has an excellent National Education Policy (2010) which can, and should, be the guideline for conducting our education at all levels. The policy states, as one of its objectives, that it will encourage both creative and critical thinking among the students. Unfortunately, seven years after the policy was passed in parliament, we are still waiting to see its full or even partial implementation. In the absence of a proper guideline, our education system is floundering.
The recent spate of question paper leaks has presented a crisis for the government. I think here's an opportunity to revamp the whole system in light of the objectives set out in NEP 2010. We need creative minds that are capable of thinking proactively. “Short suggestions” only appeal to students who do not push themselves forward or accept challenges. Short suggestions and rote learning contribute to a stasis which does not allow students to develop the competitive edge so necessary in this global world. In recent times, we have seen “super managers” from India, South Korea and other countries take over high-end jobs in the Bangladeshi market for which local graduates aren't adequately qualified. These super managers are skilled and creative, and can think outside the box; they can also effectively communicate with the world. And they are taking home five billion dollars of the hard-earned foreign exchange that expatriate workers from Bangladesh remit to their families every year. We cannot allow this to continue. We need to create our own managers and leaders, not clerks who just follow orders.
Besides strengthening regulation, some experts have also emphasised the need for awareness on the part of students and guardians to tackle question paper leaks.
You're right. Along with an effective regulatory framework, you need strict supervision and vigilance. But how long can you remain vigilant? If some families are looking for leaked questions for their children, how effective will your prevention measures be? Yes, awareness is important, but you can only create it when the society is willing to go the whole length. I don't think creating awareness against question paper leakage will be effective if the practice continues unabated and unchallenged. We need to stop it, and stop it for good.
Do you think there is a problem with our existing methods of examination?
There are many. Our examinations hardly test the students' creativity; these are geared more toward testing their memory. Take the MCQ system. It's a quick and snappy way to judge the proficiency of students in a particular topic. MCQ works in a situation where students have a thorough understanding of a subject, and not where they are only taught through rote learning.
I think we need to redraw the whole education system; we need a system that inspires creativity and is open to new ideas and methods. If you really want to test whether the students have learned a particular lesson, then open-book exams can be a viable option—it will eliminate the need of leaking question papers.
I believe a creative examination system essentially does two things: it tests 1) the depth of knowledge of students in a particular subject, and 2) their ability to express what they've learnt in their own language. If you can ensure this, it will make question paper leaks redundant.
How is this culture of question paper leakage impacting the society in general? For example, there have been reports of question papers for class II being leaked. You don't expect a seven-year-old to have any idea about this phenomenon, let alone indulge in it.
The impacts of question paper leaks are profound and multidimensional. First of all, it exposes a dark side of our society where morality and ethics are bad coins. It also shows that we are allowing some unscrupulous people to inhibit our children's ability to think independently and creatively and have ownership of their own lives. I am shocked to see that we are telling our children that they have to depend on others for passing exams. This is bad news.
I am also saddened to see the loss of a moral centre. It is happening because of our collective inertia and our obsession with politics of the day. We are more concerned with the developments on our political front than with what is happening to our children. We are putting a premium value on passing exams and getting degrees. This destroys the children's self-confidence and their will to power—their desire to touch the sky. If this continues, we are most likely to be stuck with a generation of underachievers. There will, of course, be exceptions, but exceptions don't reflect the general picture.
Consider this: a 7/8-year-old child is growing up in a world where temptation to do evil is strong and where there is reward for doing so. Many of those who sell question papers are in their teens or early twenties. What is the impact of this practice on them? They are learning to be scam operators and hobnob with the underworld dealers. What kind of mindset will they develop? Will the country be safe in their hands? It's a question that haunts me.
Given the situation, what reforms are needed in our education system?
Many indeed. We have a document which can help us in this task—NEP 2010. Just look at the list of its objectives. Each one suggests a reform. I think we can begin by reforming our school education system, extending the primary stage to class VIII and doing away with class V and class VIII ending examinations. We have to eliminate students' dependence on rote learning. Textbooks should be creative, and inspire students to think independently. Students should be taught the skills necessary to function in the society, and also develop communication skills in both their mother language and a second language, preferably English. If they can speak and write in their mother language well, they can pick up English very well as well.
Teachers should cover the syllabus and make their classes cheerful. I want our education to be more participatory, student-centred and student-friendly so that nobody feels left out.
There should be an adequate number of classrooms, as well as laboratories, libraries, playgrounds, canteens, gyms and lockers where students can keep their books instead of lugging them home. Each school should have clubs that encourage co-curricular activities. Children learn to make lifelong friendship in the playgrounds. I also propose nine months of classes, after which students will be free for three months of co-curricular activities. Imagine how revitalised they will be after the hiatus during which they can stage plays, arrange cultural shows, go on nature tours or to museums, learn discipline, play games, and so on. The possibilities are endless.
But nothing that I've mentioned above can be achieved if there is no sufficient investment in education. Universally, it is acknowledged that six percent of a country's GDP should be allocated to education. In terms of the annual budget, the allocation should not be below 25 percent. We are maintaining a 2.2 percent of GDP allocation to our education, which amounts to 10.5-11 percent of our budget. Sure, we cannot afford a jump to six percent of GDP right away, but efforts shouldn't be lacking. We may earmark four percent of GDP to education by 2025, and six percent by 2031. That will ensure about three times more investment in education than what is there today.
And finally, the NEP should be implemented in full. There should be no politicisation of the educational institutions. Students should be given lessons in leadership and how to contribute to nation-building. Leadership training should be a built-in component of our education system.