India's education system has been plagued by cheating for years. It's gotten so bad that in Bihar state this week, photographers captured parents and friends scaling the walls of a multi-story building, in full public view, to help the kids inside cheat on their high school exams by throwing them notes through the windows.
"Parental guidance, Bihar style," read one headline at an Indian outlet. Photos of the incident are going viral on Indian social media.
That people are apparently willing to risk a 20-foot fall to help children cheat on a test speaks to how important parents see these exams as being for a child's future. But the blatantness of it all shows the total lack of taboo around cheating: these amateur spidermen were happy to scale the walls in broad daylight. Witnesses said local police accepted bribes to turn a blind eye.
The incident is a telling example of how corruption — endemic in India — can work. If few people have an incentive to replace the system with a better one, it tends to go on.
How cheating on exams became so endemic in India
Exams are a big deal in India. The national 10th and 12th grade tests, known as board exams, determine who gets into the country's best universities, as well as whether students get a place in a popular course such as medicine or engineering. Top schools might ask for a score of 95 percent or more. Many middle-class Indians see these exams as crucial to their chances of a successful career, and there's enormous pressure on kids to do well.
That creates an incentive to cheat. But more than that, knowing everyone else could be cheating creates an incentive to cheat. If there's a chance another student could beat you to a sought-after college place by smuggling in notes, taking the moral high ground seems less attractive. It also becomes less taboo.
That's helped cheating become a pervasive feature of the Indian education system. Notes are routinely consulted during tests; at the more high-tech end, students get the answers relayed to their desks through earpieces. The parents climbing the walls in Bihar are just a particularly visible example of this practice.
"The exam season could well be called cheating season," writes Mridula Chari on Scroll.
Systems that are supposed to combat this don't work
Cheating sometimes happens with the tacit or even active approval of teachers; there are regular reports of them writing the answers on the blackboard, leaking tests in advance, and taking bribes to let cheating take place. Last year, a high school student set himself on fire because his teacher demanded payment for the right to cheat but his mother couldn't afford it.
"Everybody, including school principals, teachers, parents, policemen and students, is suspected to be part of the cheating enterprise," Chari writes.
The Indian government has gone to some efforts to try to put an end to the practice. Bihar state itself has an anti-cheating law that saw dozens of 12th-grade students expelled last month and their parents detained — but as the above photo shows, that has clearly not stopped cheating or made it socially stigmatized.
CCTV cameras have been installed in some examination halls, but such measures have had limited success — mostly because they provoke such a violent response from students who want to be allowed to carry on cheating. There were reports last year of students pelting the cameras with rocks to disable them; students even threw crude bombs at police who had been deployed as part of anti-cheating efforts.
In telling comments this week, Bihar's state education minister essentially gave up and said his government can't stop the cheating from happening when people remain so bent on doing it — whether that's the students themselves, or bribe-taking teachers or police.
"The government cannot stop cheating in exams," the Hindu newspaper quoted him as saying. "It is also the responsibility of the society to ensure a cheating-free exam."
As long as most people see more gain from cheating than stamping it out, it's not a problem that's going to disappear any time soon. At least Indians are managing to see the funny side of it — the Bihar cheaters now have their very own meme: