The Cambodian government’s Anti-Corruption Unit has been called on to police next month’s national school-leaving exam in a bid to stamp out systemic cheating that has for decades compromised the quality of high school students applying for university places.
The Anti-Corruption Unit, or ACU, which usually investigates powerful officials, will have an officer stationed at each of the 154 exam centres across the country and has enlisted more than 2,000 volunteers to observe and report any instances of students cheating or proctors – as exam monitors are known – taking bribes.
These have been common practices in the past.
“All stakeholders, such as proctors, students and exam observers, are required to respect the laws. If any of them are found guilty, they will be punished under the Anti-Corruption Law and other related laws,” said Chhay Savuth, ACU vice-chairman.
Punishment could include jail sentences for the worst offenders.
“It is very important for improving the quality of education so that only students with real ability will pass the exam. We need all stakeholders involved to participate in corruption-prevention during and after the exam,” Savuth said.
Education Minister Dr Hang Chuon Naron, who has begun drastic reform of a deeply flawed education system since being appointed last September, said the ACU would give legal thrust to his bid to protect the credibility of the exam, which determines who gets places in state universities.
“Many people bribe the proctors in order to cheat,” Naron said of past exams. “Cheating is not covered by law, but bribery is. So, powered by anti-corruption law, the volunteers and the Anti-Corruption Unit officials will be able to ensure the transparency of the exam,” he told University World News.
Last year the Advanced Research Consultant Team, a collective of social sciences professors and experts, canvassed students taking the 2013 exam, and found that just over two-thirds admitted to paying proctors.
Students purchased ‘cheat sheets’ from teachers or a third party for around US$5 and paid proctors a few dollars to turn a blind eye as they copied the answers during the exam. Other corrupt practices included paying the proctor directly for a favourable grade.
A previous ministerial directive, issued in 2011 to stamp out rampant cheating in the exam, had remained unenforced and ineffective.
This year the volunteer observers – mostly from local NGOs and youth groups – will be given licences to roam exam centres from room to room. Evidence of collusion between proctors and students must be immediately reported to the ACU officer stationed at the exam centre.
Students found guilty of cheating will be disqualified and banned from sitting the test for a year.
Leng Srey Keo (17) is among the 93,456 students registered to take this year’s national exam beginning on 4 August.
“When my schoolmates and I first heard about the plan to dispatch individual exam monitors, we were very concerned because the changes have come so fast,” she said. “But the plan to strengthen restrictions during the national exam has pushed us to study harder and harder, so I feel confident of passing.”
Others will not be so confident, she believes.
After bribing their way through school, some students may lack the knowledge that would enable them to get through the exam. Such students have become stuck in the “bribery cycle”, according to Srey Keo.
“I think the alleged bribery… will be reduced, but it will still exist in small percentages,” she told University World News.
The strict changes and harsh punishments, including threat of jail time, are among Education Ministry efforts to streamline a curriculum rendered almost irrelevant because of systemic corruption in schools.
Quarterly grades and marks for mid-term assignments – all heavily tainted by bribery – will no longer be considered. The national exam alone will determine university placement.
“We are encouraging students to learn to study rather than cheat,” Naron, the education minister, said.
“Students have recognised the changes and have had to work much harder this year. But that is the aim because they need to be prepared in a way that makes them more competitive once they are in the [job] market,” he said.
Naron has initiated reforms with an eye on 2015, when citizens of the 10 Association of Southeast Asian Nations – ASEAN – countries will be able to move freely across borders and ostensibly have their qualifications recognised.
Some resistance to change
However the changes have not always been welcomed.
In April, about half of the nation’s 140 medical students graduating from the eight-year university course protested after the health ministry announced that they would have to pass a new standardised exam.
They maintained it was unfair because previous graduates did not have to adhere to the new, stringent standards.
School-leavers have also tried to argue that as previous cohorts were able to pay their way into university, so should they.
* Kuch Naren contributed to this article.
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