Rumours of corrupt practices during Matriculation exams have always been rampant in Pakistan. And as is the case with rumours regarding corruption in Pakistan, most prove to be factual. Frequent cheating diminished the credibility of local exams and the Pakistani elite soon turned to British O and A Level exams instead. The common conception was that since internationally renowned western institutes administered these exams, foul play would be mitigated. At the turn of the century, when applying to foreign universities became the norm, SAT and ACT exams also became part of the private school experience.

As these standardised tests became local practice, countless tuition centres promising to aid students to get better scores mushroomed. With an increased number of Pakistanis applying to study abroad, the pressure to be admitted into the best universities in the United States became so intense that many students resorted to cheating. And what better venue to offer stressed out students &lsquooptions’ for succeeding than the myriad tuition centres across the country.

While I was a student in Pakistan, it was well known that the Islamabad SAT examination centre was the most cheating-prone. In fact, many students based in Lahore and Karachi opted to travel to the capital to take advantage of the lax invigilation. For a while, I thought that was the extent of the &lsquocheating’ that occurred at the centre – an invigilator turning a blind eye while a test-taker peeked over her friend' shoulder.

How wrong I was. My first look into the world of educational human trafficking occurred when an acquaintance asked me to take his SAT exam for him. I was outraged, but curious to know how this could even be possible.

Through my friend, I was introduced to a group of young men, predominantly studying at a prestigious university in Lahore that itself used to require SAT scores for admission. They had brainstormed the various ways in which they could assist &lsquoclients’ to a better score – from the risky change-of-name to the sure shot duplication of identity. The latter method, they claimed, was a gold mine. Acquiring forged passports from a lawyer – with their photos, but the client's bio data – allowed them to sit in any type of examination for students ready to cheat their way to the top. Demand for such test-takers outstripped supply as most capable of guaranteeing 1300+ or 1400+ from a total of 1600 in the SATs or ensuring 'A’ grades in Cambridge exams was limited.

Those in the loop made a killing, and while the band I encountered has since dismantled, others have taken its place (albeit with less success – as one former &lsquoexpert’ claims, the new outfits suffer from &lsquounprofessionalism’).

More alarmingly, at the time I was also introduced to a prominent mathematics tutor who invigilated the SAT exam in Islamabad. I had heard stories about him using SMS messages to assist his students who were all advised to register at the Islamabad test centre. He would go through the SAT II Math exams and text the answers to his students or anyone else willing to pay him. This method is still practiced by a group that sends a few smart test-takers to sit one exam. They advise their clients to register for two or three SAT II exams and, once outside the examination hall, they text the answers for all subjects to their clients.

The lax invigilation problem was also pronounced during O and A Level exams, even if they were administered by trusted, foreign institutes. I was present at Fortress Stadium the night before an A Level exam when one of the senior invigilators inspected the fake credentials and passport of a test-taker, took a meaty bribe, and promised to &lsquolook out’ for him during the exam.

These tactics being far more reliable than trying to get the paper &lsquoout,’ ambitious parents actively began to seek test-takers for their not-so-bright offspring. Ironically, it was rumoured that a judge threatened to intervene when one test-taker refused to sit for his son's exam.

In this context, I can't help but wonder about private businesses that offer to help students with their applications to foreign universities. How different is their process from the scenario in which a well-paid test-taker sits an exam for a client? Someone who cannot fill out an application form and write an original essay surely does not deserve admission to any university. Those that assist such individuals are surely promoting the butchery of meritocracy in Pakistan. Even worse, they help send representatives of their nation to foreign lands where they continue to cheat, thereby tarnishing Pakistan's repute.

Don't get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with proof reading an essay for someone and giving them advice regarding which universities to apply to. But this service is already granted free of charge by the Fulbright scholarship program that is sending hundreds of Pakistanis to universities in the US. How can a local business, ostensibly offering the same services, compete? It's possible that they are concentrating heavily on markets other than the US or &lsquodolling up’ applications for otherwise undeserving students through means that should be discouraged.

Case in point was a wonderfully eloquent teacher we had at Aitchison College. When a senior approached him for assistance with his essay, the teacher dictated, often on the spot, the most verbose piece of writing imaginable. When teachers and parents themselves fail to uphold ethical values, they cannot expect youngsters who look up to them to miraculously change the face of Pakistan for the better.

Time for some introspection, perhaps? With the notion of jihad being evoked in various contexts, I'd like to bring it up again here in its meaning as a struggle with the self to do the right thing. Perhaps Pakistan's youth would be better off if they opted more often to do the right thing.

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