September 2019

In Year 1, my daughter was asked to make a desert diorama. She was barely six then. We received the home project question on a Thursday, as was the school’s practice to upload the home learning announcements then. I remember feeling apprehensive reading the details of the project. I remember having to look up the word “diorama”. I remember thinking, “Really? You are expecting my Year 1 child to make this model?”

From the beginning, I always encouraged my daughter to try to make her own projects, help where necessary (buying material, using hot glue gun, and such). I made it a point to appreciate her work, her poems, her spelling errors on her posters, her wiggly lines because they were done by her. But I also had to support her emotionally when she would make the effort to write her first winter poem, with rhyming and all, only to have the teacher select two poems and inviting those two students to the stage to read them out – poems that were clearly written by their parent(s)!

Since my daughter began her schooling some seven years ago, I have repeatedly faced this dilemma when she came home with a project. I had begun to dread them. The projects barely ever seemed appropriate for her age group and year group, and it seemed almost unspokenly expected that the parent(s) would not just help but complete the project for the children. 

Getting back to the desert diorama. 

Once I found out what the word meant, I went to see the teacher who asked me not to worry as the children were not expected to really do the project all by themselves. Even though apprehensive, I went along, took my daughter to buy all the materials, collect sand, sat her down next to me while I went about making the diorama, occasionally asking her to place a model here, a model there, pouring in the sand, placing the cotton clouds. Finally, the diorama was complete. 

This wasn’t the worst part of the experience. 

The next day, we were invited to a “Show and Tell” where the children presented “their” dioramas, proudly, confidently!  My hands began to sweat, light beads of perspiration formed across my eyebrows and my throat dried up because it was clear almost none of the children had made their dioramas. Yet, they were each coming to the front of the classroom with their models and presenting them to the class, beginning with a statement “My desert diorama”!

Why did I suffer such anxiety over what might seem like a regular practice in most schools globally? Well, it’s quite simple. At that moment, I was shocked, horrified and frozen in my seat because we just told the students they could take credit for someone else’s work. We told the students it was ok to have someone else do their work and then present it as their own. It was ok to… contract cheat! 

My daughter’s school was a prominent one, following the UK National Curriculum, catering to “high-end parents” and having a high rating from governing bodies. But, it seems they were not the only ones regularly following this practice. A quick and casual word around town, among friends and colleagues and I found a regular pattern of projects expected to be completed by parents from schools with varying backgrounds in syllabi, parent community, and so on. Parents who were clearly aggrieved, working parents who felt added pressure to complete these projects for their children, and often felt competition to do them better, bigger, more impressive that others in the class.

What’s more, in the process of asking around, one of my assistants, Swathi Venugopal and I stumbled upon a stationery store that had now converted part of its shop to making models and school projects that moms came to them to make, with reasonable payments “…as the moms didn’t have time to make them”, said the store keeper to us, in a hushed voice. 

The message we are sending our children from such a young age is not only scary, but dangerous because most of the teachers and parents don’t have a clue to the damage they are doing to the children’s values of integrity. 

From then on, I began to groom my daughter to start by telling her class that she had help from her mom or dad or cousin or nanny whenever she did receive help in completing a project. As she moved to higher primary classes, I began to get her to write on her models and projects next to her name “with help from” – making it a visual message and announcement. 

My daughter has been practicing this for a few years now. Sometimes it intrigues her classmates, sometimes we face backlash from her teachers. But I stand steadfast beside my daughter, ensuring nothing deters from the right message and nothing emotionally or educatively scars her.  

Now my daughter tries to ensure she completes all her projects on her own “because mom I want to write only my name on the project”. Now my daughter tries to get her classmates to follow the same practice. Now my daughter has cascaded this practice to her cousins in the family. 

But this is just the story of one mother and one child. Thousands of children across the world are receiving the dangerous and scary message daily. And that makes it crucial to get the message out there to as many schools, management, teachers and parents as possible, for could it possibly pave way for some insight into why students at higher education level feel it is ok to contract cheat, students who otherwise might score high on upholding ethical values index?

Something known previously by a select few is getting serious attention of late - Kenya is a big player in the contract cheating industry. While certainly not all contract cheating providers reside in Kenya, there are signs that a great many of them do. Why? According to some sources, the country is rich with highly educated people who have few available employment opportunities

It is easy to neutralize our cheating when what is at stake are basic human needs of physiology and safety (think Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs). The contract cheating providers in Kenya often talk about how they have no choice - they need an income, there is demand for contract cheating, and they can provide the supply. We bemoan their immorality, but in fact, this type of ethical dilemma is so common that it has a name - the Heinz dilemma. Indeed, how do we ask people to choose honesty over shelter, responsibility over safety, or fairness over food? 

To be sure, one could argue that people always have choices. They could find another job, perhaps. With a lot of effort and perhaps years of waiting, they could emigrate from Kenya to a country where there are jobs. They could provide legitimate educational support services. But let’s be honest - the real demand is for custom written essays, not for legitimate educational support (typically offered by the higher education institutions themselves).

So, there are really two questions - how do we curb demand for custom assignments and how do we reduce/eliminate the supply? To answer the curbing demand question, the focus needs to be on the educational institutions themselves. Should we offer legitimate 24/7 educational support services to our students so they are in less need of these other services? Can we better design our assignments so contract cheating is less possible and/or likely? Should we detect contract cheating and issue consequences so students realize that there are consequences and the option becomes less attractive? 

The answer to all of the previous questions is probably “yes and”. In other words, there is likely no one-size-fits-all response.

But are there other ways we can decrease supply while we are working on decreasing demand? Some of us have argued that we should make the contract cheating industry illegal. In that debate, we have acknowledged that it is difficult to establish the laws when the businesses operate internationally. When a company exists in Kenya, but sells custom assignments to students in countries like Australia, Britain, Canada, Ireland, New Zealand, and the United States, how do we stop them?

To stop the burgeoning industry in Kenya, it seems obvious that cooperation from Kenyan authorities would be necessary. However, so far, it seems that such cooperation has been non-existent, despite an apparent promise issued a couple of years ago that the Kenyan authorities would “crack down on essay writers”

Here’s a bold proposition to the countries being damaged by contract cheating - threaten to withhold aid to Kenya until Kenyan authorities do something about the contract cheating industry that is thriving under a lack of regulations and laws.

I am no foreign aid expert, and I know that it is complicated, but I also understand that sometimes only money talks. So, how much money are we talking about here? In 2017, the United States gave over $1 billion in aid to Kenya. In 2016, the UK gave Kenya about 134 million pounds. In 2018, Canada gave $83.4 million in aid to Kenya

Withholding aid may not be the most ethical solution, but if any government leaders are serious about tackling the supply side of the industry, they have got to start thinking about ways to bring the “supply countries” to the table to sit and discuss with the “demand countries”. We can’t realistically tackle this problem otherwise.

In this week’s blog post, I want to highlight a worthy opinion published in the Gulf News by Dr. Jamal Sanad Al Suwaidi

Dr. Al-Suwaidi is a Nobel Prize nominated intellectual leader based in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) whose most recent opinion piece lamented the problem of fake degrees in the Gulf region. Dr. Al-Swaidi accurately notes that the proliferation of fake degrees “reflects a serious moral crisis” created, in part, by the obsession that a degree (rather than experience and competency) is considered the only pathway to personal and professional successes. The good doctor ends his opinion piece with a call for others to join him in a “campaign against this epidemic”.  

I have stated before in my writings on contract cheating that if it is left unaddressed, it has the potential to turn all of our otherwise legitimate educational institutions into diploma mills. In other words, those of us in accredited institutions will be the ones issuing the fake degrees that Dr. Al-Swaidi warns us against. So, the issue of fake degrees is related to contract cheating - in fact, one could argue that securing a fake degree is the climax of contract cheating. So we must not fool ourselves - while Dr. Al-Swaidi is talking about the extent of the problem in the Gulf region, we have heard in the news about the prevalence of the disease across multiple regions throughout the world including in India, Kenya, LebanonMalaysia, Ukraine, and the United States of America. So, this is not a “cultural”, regional, or otherwise isolated problem. This is a problem with the over commercialization of higher education where the grades and degrees have gained more value than the underlying education, skills and knowledge they were invented to represent.

I hear Dr. Al-Swaidi’s call for a “campaign against this epidemic” and I repeat that call for others to join in. A good place to start is our 4th International Day of Action Against Contract Cheating this October 16th, 2019. Please join us.