By Rhiannon Smith.
Tripoli, 13 May:
Last week, fourth year medical students attending one of their final semester exams at the University of . . .[restrict]Tripoli’s Medical Faculty got an unexpected surprise. Their exam was cancelled at the last minute. Actually, not even at last minute. Their exam was cancelled once most students were halfway through writing the exam. Although it is fairly normal for exams to be cancelled or postponed by the university without warning, on this particular occasion the cause was the students themselves.
Eyewitnesses say that part way through the exam there were rumblings of discontent throughout the exam hall as students struggled with unusually difficult questions. A group of students then decided enough was enough and refused to continue the exam. They ripped up their papers and started breaking chairs with cries of ‘Allahu Akbar’. When some of the more diligent students attempted to carry on working, their exam papers were ripped up by these marauding soon-to-be doctors.
As with many of the protests, demonstrations and strikes in Libya since the revolution, this chaotic scene was hardly a shining example of organised, principled protest with aims, objectives and demands. Rather it exemplified the pervasive lack of understanding throughout Libya about the difference between exercising your democratic rights and participating in violent, criminal behavior in order to get what you want.
As medical students nearing the end of their studies, these young Libyans represent some of the brightest hopes for Libya’s future. Yet as products of Qaddafi’s repressive society and poor education system their only lesson in freedom has been through the revolution where it took violence, guns and manpower to make change happen. With the Libyan government failing to raise awareness about what ‘freedom’, ‘democracy’ and ‘civic duty’ really mean, and little over six months having passed since Libya’s liberation declaration, it is not surprising that many still see violent revolt as the way only to get things done. However, this reckless ‘revolutionism’ is undermining attempts to make real issues and concerns heard.
So why did these students revolt? The reasons vary depending on whom you speak to. The students who had studied hard for the exam said that the questions were extremely difficult and covered topics they had not been taught. They felt the exam was unfair and the questions should have been changed. However, rumours among circles renowned for their flair for cheating rather than their ability to study told a different story. They too found the questions difficult, but for a different reason.
They had been leaked a copy of the upcoming exam a few days before, and had learnt the answers to these questions. Presumably someone in the faculty had found out and the exam was altered at the last minute. Realising that their attempt to cheat had been thwarted and knowing that they would surely fail, these students were apparently the ringleaders of the ensuing chaos.
Unfortunately, cheating on university exams is a phenomenon that is all too common in Libyan universities. If caught, students face severe penalties and risk being thrown out of their courses. Yet this only seems to encourage undergraduates to find more innovative ways of cheating the system. Ask any Libyan student about cheating on exams and they will be able to give you a whole list of ingenious methods for finding the correct answers and getting away with those methods, whether they use them themselves or know of others who do.
This environment of deception is reportedly often encouraged by university staff who, it is claimed, turn a blind eye to cheats because they need their students to pass.
So why this culture of cheating? The reality of the situation is that for many university students, cheating is the only way they can hope to pass their exams. It is very common for undergraduates to fail several years, retaking each one until they pass. The result is a student body that is more likely to graduate at 25 than 21, made up of young Libyans who have become de-motivated and disengaged from their studies and reduced to the point where cheating a system seen as deeply unfair seems par for the course.
This is not to say that Libyan students lack intelligence or determination, rather that they all too often find themselves in a challenging learning environment where even grasping the basics of any given subject is made very difficult.
Let us take medical students as an example. Their first problem is purely physical. In a typical lecture there are over 1,000 students all jostling for space, trying to see and hear what the lecturer is saying. Unless you arrive early, you will probably find yourself standing for the entire lecture. Needless to say, this is not a productive educational environment. In addition, the university is not easily accessible unless you have a car, and even with a car the traffic going in to the campus and limited parking mean attending lectures can seem like a waste of time and effort. Many students just buy the lecture notes and study on their own.
The second problem is the teaching itself. University professors are generally underpaid, overstretched and lack basic training and it is quite common for lectures to be cancelled, moved or postponed at the last minute. Knowing this, students have even less incentive to make the effort to attend class. To make matters worse there is very little accountability in Libya’s education system. Students can complain about teaching standards but they rarely see change. The whole system is very impersonal and there is little to no focus on individual student needs. A student who has failed his first year three times receives no more support, guidance or encouragement than a student who has aced his entire degree.
In terms of exams, the Libyan education system from primary school up to university is based on learning and testing by rote. The idea of learning study skills and exam techniques is fairly alien in Libya. Past papers are available, but instead of using these to practice applying knowledge and honing technique, most students just learn how to answer individual questions in the hope that they will be repeated (which they often are). Students generally feel they have not been given the necessary skills to answer unseen questions, so there is understandably frustration when the unseen questions actually appear.
As a result, the prevailing attitude seems to be to give as good as you get; if Libya’s universities cheat their students by failing to provide them with a quality education, then the students will cheat in order to get their qualifications. Perhaps the fairly lax attitude to cheating in universities is a tacit acknowledgement of the difficulties Libyan students face within the education system.
Certainly Libyan students deserve better. Change needs to happen with Libya’s education system on a huge scale in order for this country to have any hope of achieving its potential, yet violently boycotting exams and demanding easier exams is not the way forward. Libyan students should be striving to be the best that they can. Pasting short terms solutions over deep rooted educational problems will help no one in the long run. How can Libya hope to have a decent health service, functioning infrastructure or its own capable engineers if its students were never taught skills that can be applied to these real life situations?
Demographically, university students represent a large section of the Libyan population, yet so far their voices have not been heard. Many students fought in the revolution, yet in order to achieve the goals of the revolution and rebuild a new Libya, they need to realise that now is the time to leave brute force behind. They represent Libya’s hope for a better future, and if they were to campaign legitimately for the educational reforms they need and deserve, then they would be setting a much needed example to the rest of the country.
Yes, it should be the responsibility of the educational authorities to enact reforms, but in reality real change is not going to come from the dinosaurs of this education system. The attitude of students should not be one of ‘tit for tat’, but rather one where they begin taking responsibility for their own future. They must discard the all too familiar attitude of being powerless victims of a system beyond their control, and become the change they want to see.