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Wait: could rampant cheating be a good thing?

Last week on this page I wrote about a chronic problem in Kenya: that we are increasingly unable to trust the certificates churned out by our educational institutions and examination bodies. Some of these certificates are forgeries; others are bought without doing any of the requisite study work; yet others are gained by cheating in examinations.

This is problem for society, because bad people drive out the good; cheaters spoil the market and force good job applicants out of it; the market treats everyone as a “lemon” (American parlance for substandard goods) and prices fall because value cannot be recognized.

But wait: could this rampant cheating and finagling actually be a good thing, in the long run? Yes it could, and here’s why.

Two questions for you, first: are examinations actually a good way of testing a candidate? Second: do job candidates who demonstrate strong academic credentials actually turn out to be good employees?

Let’s start with examinations. Public examinations were good to me in my early life, but I will never be a supporter of them. As I have raged on this page before, our system takes children into schools at age six or so; pours facts, theorems and conjectures into their heads as gospel truths; then asks the waifs to sit down at age twelve and sixteen and be subjected to public examination. On one particular day, at one particular time, regardless of their state of health or mind.

What about those children who actually make it through the examinations with flying colours? Should they land the plum jobs and are they destined for greatness? In some cases, yes indeed: there are many children who are intelligent, gifted, determined or resilient enough to tackle the world of education by examination and win. Good wishes to them.

But there are many other children who do well in examinations simply because they slogged and crammed (but learnt little); others who practiced past papers manically; and yet others who paid for leaked papers. Their certificates show they are “stars” – but would you want them working for you?

And so if rampant cheating is going to destroy the credibility of the public examinations and certificates system, a part of me wants to stand up and cheer. A part of me wants to hope that it puts the final nail in the coffin of a practice we should have interred for good decades ago.

When exams and associated certificates have no credibility, what will happen next? Universities will be forced to hold their own entrance tests. Employers will be forced to stop this lazy emphasis on grades and do what they should really be doing: assessing the whole person applying for a job – over a period of time, not just on one day. The destruction of the examination system will lead to job interviews that assess character and attitude and depth of understanding – not just the grades clocked one afternoon long ago.

Whatever we do in response to the examinations problem – save the system, or ditch it – the bottom line is that we must not create a society in which cheats prosper. That will be our undoing. As blogger S D Maundu has pointed out, when cheats become managers, teachers, MPs, lawyers and parents themselves, “having gotten used to lying and cheating their way to “success”, they see it as a virtue to inculcate those same tendencies in their children and those under their care.”

Look around you. Every corporate has a major fraud problem, perpetrated by employees high and low. The police force shows its rot from recruitment to retirement. People lie and cheat to get into power, and then lie and cheat to stay in it.

All this because we have allowed cheating to be rewarded. It’s a drag on our development and a stain on our national fabric. Whichever way we end cheating, end it we must.

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