Shariq* is a lawyer because of the novel coronavirus.
When asked about it, he will tell generations after him how a raging pandemic wreaked havoc across the globe in 2020, but paused to bless him, in particular, with a prestigious law degree.
He does not tell me this, but I almost picture this occurring as he recalls precisely how he cheated his way out of a never-ending academic journey and to the other side of studentship—all thanks to online exams.
“It’s like COVID-19 happened just so Shariq could graduate,” his friend quips.
The statement seems believable when the man himself narrates the specifics. Having turtled through a 3-year external University of London law degree in 5 years, Shariq passed his final exams with two laptops, some masking tape, a web camera, and a smart accomplice.
As the world saw everything shift online amidst COVID-19, remote learning also became the norm for many students in Pakistan.
Amongst the many valid concerns raised against the feasibility of online learning—including lack of accessibility to the internet and other resources required for it—was one question: what if students cheat?
A 2019 survey by Inside Higher Ed (IHE) and Gallup revealed that six of ten college and university faculty members believe that more cheating occurs in online classes than offline.
In a considerably smaller pool, I conducted an online poll asking if students cheated during graded assessments when education moved online during COVID-19.
Out of 298 participants, 69% admitted to cheating. 68% of 141 participants said they had not cheated before education moved online.
The most interesting response was to my last question: Is cheating morally justified given the unprecedented circumstances of COVID-19? 60% of 183 participants said yes.
Rida*, a student at National University of Science and Technology (NUST), agrees.
“I don’t usually cheat but I think the circumstances were extraordinary,” she says. “Why are universities even having exams during a pandemic?”
She said she “just asked a friend to write an essay” for her and does not find the act particularly unethical in the present circumstances.
Sara*, a Pakistani student enrolled at a European university, justifies academic dishonesty by citing the mental toll of COVID-19.
“I just had a lot of stress,” she explains. “Moving back to Pakistan, with lay-overs at different countries and COVID tests at every stop, I could not really focus on my academics.”
She added that she always preferred to finish her own assignments, but mental exhaustion made her seek a friend’s help in attempting an exam.
Talha*, a student at Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS), cheated in a Psychology exam and blames teachers for giving students enough leeway.
“I don’t think I can blame the kids for cheating in this one. The professor literally emailed us saying he trusts us and hopes we won’t cheat,” he says, incredulous.
“So naturally, we made a WhatsApp group, added friends from class and solved the exam together.”
“But the mean was very high and I think it backfired,” he adds with regret.
Shariq feels no remorse for cheating in his Law exams and says he would do it again if given the opportunity.
“What have they been doing to us our entire lives?” he attacks the education system.
“We have to prove our knowledge of years’ worth of education in a 3-hour sitting. Some people study for months and don’t get good grades. Some do the bare minimum and pass with flying colours. How is that fair?”
His frustration stems from a long-drawn journey of taking exams, repeating classes, and retaking tests. He has fallen short of expectations too many times to care for an education system that has always failed him.
Shariq was not able to clear his O and A levels. His bought himself a diploma that would get him accepted into a local university, cleared his foundation year in 2014, and began a joint Bachelor of Science and Law degree at Universal College Lahore (UCL).
He graduated in 2020 by making his brother sit for his exams.
Of the four exams he had to pass, one was a third attempt—something his parents did not know. Even then, he felt the pressure.
“At this point, everyone just wanted me to get done with it, by any means.”
Jis tarah marzi, beta [by any means you prefer, son], his father had told him. His family did not care if it was a “third-class” degree, or one gotten through ill means, as long as he had one.
So the elaborate cheating plan Shariq concocted comprised the tacit approval of his parents, the support of his friends, and the smarts of his brother.
The exams were to be monitored by Proctortrack, one of the many external proctoring services that have seen a boom in usage since COVID-19.
Such services require the installation of surveillance software on computers, through which human proctors or Artificial Intelligence (AI) can watch out for suspicious activity through web cameras. The sensitive AI detection, sometimes triggered by harmless movement, has invited critique against overbearing surveillance.
“Proctortrack uses state-of-the-art technologies to recreate effective monitoring settings,” states the company’s website. “Fully automated, it detects and deters cheating in the most sophisticated way.”
“I can’t lose to a web camera!” Shariq recalls thinking. He conducted extensive research online to find cheating methods, found them too complicated, and settled on a simple but risky plan.
He joined two laptops back-to-back with masking tape, fitted a dining table inside the bedroom where he would take the exam, and went to buy an external webcam with his friend.
Before the exam, he swung his hybrid-laptop around the room to get clearance from the examiner while his brother hid behind the bathroom door.
With the external webcam facing towards him, he then settled down to pretend to take the exam, while his brother attempted the exam on the opposite laptop—the one the camera was actually connected to.
Shariq prides himself on emerging unscathed.
“Everyone must have cheated, of course,” he says.
He had checked the graduation box, the only thing he wanted, and did all he could to achieve it.
“I never wanted to be a lawyer, anyway.”
Hammad* is embarrassed to be a first-year student at LUMS’ School of Science and Engineering.
“I don’t even want to call myself a LUMS student after seeing the extent of academic dishonesty being practised,” he tells me.
His first experience of sitting exams at the reputed private university was online, and the conditions were “abysmal” to him.
“You have 30 people in voice calls collaborating on exams that have to be submitted in 3 hours. Like, is that a joke?” he sounds appalled.
“You have group chats, all kinds of conferences, going on during exams, and the videos and mics are not turned on, which they should be to at least simulate an examination environment,” he says.
While Hammad does not agree with academic dishonesty—even jokingly threatening to expose his friends who engage in it—he understands why students do it.
“When there is relative grading and everyone cheats, the mean is astronomically high,” he explains.
“So the smart people who are honest barely meet the mean, and often fall below it,” he says, acknowledging that cheating is necessitated to remain afloat.
“But the problem is that scholarships, the dean’s honours list, and your cumulative GPA is going to suffer because of this,” he says, adding that many of his “brilliant” friends have been discouraged from trying for academic success because of unfair exam practises.
Instructors also structure exams in a way that is “highly conducive to cheating,” he adds, citing quantitative and repeated questions that encourage dishonesty through easy means.
Despite the bleak picture he paints, he maintains that the cheating cycle can be broken if students and teachers are willing to fix the system.
“Everyone has the ability to stop cheating. If you choose not to, you’re the bad guy.”
Professor Waqas Saleem has been teaching socio-cultural anthropology at Quaid-e-Azam University (QAU) for twelve years.
He tells me that shifting online was a challenge to be overcome by students and instructors alike.
“The dynamics at QAU are different because we have students hailing from every nook and cranny of Pakistan,” he says of the public research university. “We have students from places ranging from Thatta to Gilgit-Baltistan. And not everyone has access to the technology required for online education.”
Acknowledging the limitations faced by students, he maintains that the university has been very accommodating.
“Students would do handwritten assignments, take pictures, and then upload them to the platforms provided by us. They could submit work via email, Microsoft Teams, Turnitin, or even WhatsApp. Multiple options were given to students to submit their exams, even though the work-load increased for instructors,” he says.
As handwritten work could not be checked online for plagiarism, there were few methods of detecting dishonesty, he added. Vivas would often be conducted to deter cheating.
“Still, if not all, I think most students cheated,” he claims.
When asked if he considers students’ justifications to cheating valid during COVID-19, he seems disappointed.
“We’ve been giving students many opportunities. They can reappear, resubmit, give assignments after some time—sometimes exams were even reconducted by universities. Teachers have tried to be as fair as possible,” he says.
“But you simply cannot blur the line between right and wrong. I don’t think anything can ever justify cheating.”
*Names have been changed to maintain anonymity