As it grapples with security issues and economic crises, Egypt faces another annual obstacle: how to combat organized cheating on high school thanaweya amma exams.
As the final examination marathon began earlier this month, the proliferation of leaked exams and cheating online and in classrooms shook the Ministry of Education, even drawing the attention of the Cabinet, which stepped in to attempt to solve the problem.
Last October, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi issued a law imposing prison sentences of up to one year and fines ranging from LE20,000 to LE50,000 for anyone caught leaking exams through printing, broadcasting or any other means of publication.
A few months earlier, in May 2015, the Ministry of Education formed a committee to fight electronic cheating, which coordinated its efforts with the Ministry of Interior. The committee, which brought together education and communications ministry officials, also created a Facebook page through which students and parents can make suggestions on how to combat the phenomenon.
With that under their belt, the ministry inaugurated the thanaweya amma exams 2016 period unperturbed, confident it would curb a trend that has intensified over the past four years as students became more adept at using technology and social media to cheat. It was only when the Arabic language and religion exams were leaked on the day an estimated 560,000 students were supposed to take them that the government started to panic.
The exam was leaked on several Facebook pages, the most notorious of which is dubbed Chao Ming Helps Thanaweya Amma Students Cheat. While state media continues to report that the page’s administrator has been arrested, the page still appears to be running and has yet to be taken down.
On June 5, the Ministry of Education announced it would cancel the thanaweya amma religion exam after it was leaked online shortly before it was meant to take place. The exam was rescheduled for June 29.
The ministry said it was pursuing legal action against those responsible for leaking the exam.
Minister of Education Al-Hilaly al-Sherbiny also ordered that the security of the ministry’s “secret” print house, which is responsible for printing examination material, be reinforced with forces from the ministry’s Central Security Administration, and referred the matter to public prosecution.
Police have arrested over 70 students across the governorates in relation to leaking thanaweya amma exams, referring them to prosecutors for further investigations, according to the education minister.
Many students from Port Said, Qalyubiya, Beheira and other governorates were arrested for running Facebook pages that leak exams and aid cheating.
Police also arrested personnel affiliated with print houses responsible for exams for involvement in organized cheating.
Twelve officials from the Ministry of Education, some of whom were employed at the ministry’s printing press, were also detained pursuant to prosecutors’ claims that they played a role in leaking exams.
On June 11, Sherbiny was put in the hot seat when MPs criticized the ministry for the leaked exams as well as other shortcomings palpable in the education system, such as frequent power cuts, deteriorating classroom conditions and poor attendance rates.
The education minister told Parliament that the ministry’s research revealed that preventing electronic cheating is made more challenging because of wider access to more advanced technology than in previous years.
“Students are using technology we’ve never seen before,” he said. “One student had an earpiece planted, and we only discovered after it exploded in his ear and he was transferred to a hospital.”
Other students use hats and “electronic glasses” to cheat, he said.
The education minister relayed the different suggestions his ministry had formulated to combat organized cheating, all of which were rejected by the relevant ministries.
The ministry had requested that social media sites like Facebook be blocked — or internet access be disrupted altogether — in the vicinity of the schools where examinations are being held, but was told that this would be unconstitutional.
Sherbiny said that internet access can be prevented inside classrooms, but that would cost LE150 million and is only 40 percent effective.
On June 8, the Cabinet convened and agreed to form a committee bringing together officials from the Defense Ministry, the Justice Ministry, the Education Ministry and Interior Ministry to look into new ways by which exams can be taken starting next year that can keep up with technological developments.
Prime Minister Sherif Ismail also highlighted the importance of changing examination methods, as well as university admissions procedures.
A day earlier, the prime minister oversaw the examination process himself along with the education minister, highlighting the need to holding those leaking exams accountable for their offenses.
But disgruntled thanaweya amma students objecting to the entire examination process staged protests in front of the Ministry of Education on June 13, chanting against the system and calling for the minister’s resignation.
The students listed a set of demands, including changing the college enrollment system, adequately compensating teachers, holding those responsible for leaking the exams accountable, Education Ministry reform and putting a new examination system in place as potential solutions to the issue.
Ahmed Adel, a thanaweya amma student, places the blame on corruption inside the Education Ministry.
“The exams are coming from the ministry, and the print house is affiliated to the ministry, so it is only reasonable to conclude that whoever leaks exams does it from within the ministry,” he claims.
Adel says that the Education Ministry needs to identify who is responsible for the corruption.
“Chao Ming is not the one to blame,” he says. “It is the ministry … And the ministry that allows something like this to happen cannot be a ministry.”
Hagar Mahmoud, a thanaweya amma student, also thinks that an important node in the problem is that of teachers. “They need to change the teachers and train new people who are up to the responsibility,” she argues.
She claims that some of the tests are leaked by teachers themselves, and some of her colleagues buy them hours before they are scheduled to take place for LE200.
Mahmoud highlights the need for a complete overhaul in the system. “Aren’t you wondering why students cheat and why the exams are leaked?” she asks. She explains that the whole system needs reform, from current curriculums to teaching methods and requirements for colleges.
Salma Hussein, a parent of a thanaweya amma student, also believes the whole education system needs reform, from primary school until college applications.
“Even those monitoring the exams feel bad for the students,” she says. “There’s so much pressure to pass these exams, as if doing so will get you into heaven.”
She says that most Egyptian students go through thanaweya amma to get into colleges, meaning that they “commit to the education system and its failures up until the last year.”
Hussein explains that parents and students subequently find ways to maneuver around its failures, citing private lessons, for example.
“Thanaweya amma is the manifestation of the education system’s failure,” she concludes.