School exam cheating rampant in graft-ridden Indonesia

PUBLISHED : Friday, 31 May, 2013, 2:33pm
UPDATED : Friday, 31 May, 2013, 2:53pm

After praying for good grades in their exams, a group of Indonesian high-school students received a surprising text message - come to class 90 minutes early and you’ll be given the answers.

But it was not divine intervention. The message was from their teacher, who had been leading the prayer session at the Jakarta school and was offering to sell the information for US$3 to the final year students, aged 17 and 18.

“Their teacher said their US$3 fee would go towards renovating a local mosque,” said Febri Hendri, the head of public service monitoring with Indonesia Corruption Watch, which uncovered the case after receiving complaints.

It is just one of many examples of cheating at the country’s annual school exams, a trend critics say is teaching young people that graft is acceptable in a nation already desperately battling corruption.

Students are finding ever more inventive ways of beating the system, from buying answer books for a small fee on Indonesia’s version of eBay to receiving them in paid-for text messages.

They flood Facebook pages and online chat groups to exchange information ahead of the tests, which are taken annually by students in grade six (aged 11 and 12), grade nine (aged 14-15) and grade 12 (aged 17-18).

Local TV this year showed footage of pupils looking at mobile phones under their desks and peeking at others’ answers during the exams, which took place last month.

Observers say this year has been particularly bad after tests were delayed in some provinces due to late delivery of exam papers, allowing those who had already sat them to pass the answers to students in other areas.

Critics point to the consistently high success rates - results announced last week showed that 99.48 per cent had passed this year -- as evidence that cheating is commonplace, although the government denies this.

While some of the cheating stories are comical, critics say they are in reality a sad illustration of how Indonesians are being taught that corruption is part of daily life from an early age.

“It sets students up very early to cheat in life. It says that Indonesian culture is corrupt, while we should be teaching students that the Indonesian way is to be honest,” said Corruption Watch’s Hendri.

Indonesia is one of the most graft-ridden nations in the world, and has slipped to 118th out of 176 countries in Transparency International’s annual corruption index.

The public sector in particular is seen as corrupt, and cheating is now so widely accepted in the education system that whistle-blowers, not cheaters, are often the ones who are shamed.

In 2011 Siami, who like many Indonesians goes by one name, reported to the education board in the city of Surabaya, East Java province, that the teacher of her son, in the sixth grade, had provided students with test answers.

But the move provoked an outcry in the local community. She was forced to publicly apologise after being confronted by a 100-strong crowd, and she and her family eventually had to move out of the area.

Critics say a rotten system led by a graft-ridden ministry is at the heart of the problem, with teachers encouraged to deliver high pass rates and not quality education.

“There’s no way the schools can all pass the exams, so that has encouraged a kind of structural cheating,” said Retno Listyarti, secretary general of the Indonesian Teachers Union Federation.

While 20 per cent of the state budget is spent on education, much of the money does not appear to be making its way to schools, with many buildings dilapidated and teachers sometimes going unpaid for months.

Indonesia also does poorly in international education studies, a stark contrast to the exam results it churns out every year.

In the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa), an influential test carried out by the OECD which looks at educational performance of 15 year olds, Indonesia was one of the worst performers among 65 nations.

The 2009 PISA results, which are the most recently published, put Indonesia 57th for reading, 60th for science and 61st for maths.

Education ministry spokesman Ibnu Hamad accepted there were problems but insisted they were down to the nation’s system of decentralised government and not the ministry itself.

“Sixty per cent of our budget goes straight to local governments, and it’s their job to distribute the money to schools,” he said.

He also rejected claims the education ministry was corrupt as “baseless” and denied cheating at exams was widespread.