'It's not fair if you don't let us cheat'

Nick Holdstock

Schoolchildren everywhere cheat in exams. But British and American universities are said to be especially worried by a rise in fraudulent applications from Chinese students. In China, meanwhile, some schools are going to extreme lengths to prevent cheating on the gao kao, the national college entrance examinations.

A school in Jilin province made headlines when it required pupils to pass through a metal detector to prevent them sneaking electronic devices into the exams; girls were forbidden from wearing bras with metal underwire or clasps. A school in Hubei province brought in external invigilators after 99 identical exam papers were handed in last year. This provoked a riot by students and parents. After the exams the invigilators were trapped in school offices while hundreds of students threw rocks at the windows. ‘We want fairness,’ they shouted. ‘There is no fairness if you do not let us cheat’ (i.e. everyone else does so why can’t we).

In the late 1990s I worked at a small teacher training college in ? Province; all the students there had done badly on the gao kao. Anyone with a good score was in a better college, or university, certainly in a better town. The facilities were poor; most of the lessons consisted of mind-numbing rote learning. When I set exams, I made sure they would be easy for anyone who had turned up to class. Other teachers told me to watch out for cheating, but I was still amazed by how blatant and widespread it was. I saw answers written on palms, wrists, on small strips of paper in tiny characters; at least very few people in China had mobile phones then.

When I marked the papers I found widespread copying; in one case two boys had lifted entire paragraphs from each other. The college authorities agreed that this was definitely against the rules, and truly awful, then made me pass them anyway.

Ultimately the problem, both then and now, was an education system that made pupils’ futures contingent on their ability to regurgitate information. In that kind of system, with so much pressure and competition, perhaps cheating is the only sane response. Michael Gove wants more learning by rote, tougher exams and more competition between pupils in British schools. Which probably means more cheating, too.


  • 19 July 2013 at 1:05am
    tony lynch says:
    I have just finished teaching a summer school course at a university in Xi'an. I was required to set an examination. I was politely informed that the key issue was attendance. I was also told that marks in the high 90's were pretty much expected, and that anything lower would be troublesome - exceept if an otherwise attending student failed to show for the exam. Then something in the 80's would be fine.

  • 24 July 2013 at 8:24pm
    Derek Newton says:
    In Chinese education scores are everything. Although students take the gao kao around the age of 18, they start training for it as soon as they enter primary school. The examination system permeates every aspect of the curriculum. Exams such as the gao kao operate on an industrial scale, testing what can be tested. But what can be tested is not the same as what could be learned. To the despair of Chinese educationalists, the curriculum remains stubbornly knowledge-based and fails to promote imagination, creativity or the application of learning. Of course it's possible to cheat in the Chinese exam system because everyone is expected to provide the same, 'correct' answer. This is the 'world-class' examination system Mr Gove apparently seeks to emulate. But then 'ignorance is bliss' and Mr Gove certainly has the arrogance of ignorance.