When I was a third year student in one of the universities in Uganda, I found a lucrative way to make a little extra money. OK, a lot of extra money. I became one of the growing number of students, former students and professors writing research proposals and dissertations for overworked or rich students.
I started by offering assistance to a few fellow students, but before long I had a list of clients from all the universities in Kampala. As a result I had little time for my own classwork, but with students offering me 250,000 shillings for a social science undergraduate research paper and over 700,000 shillings for a social science masters thesis, how could I say no? Soon enough I was overwhelmed and had to give up on the money to focus on my own studies.
People offering these services hang up signs around campus stating that they can assist in “data collection” or “research assistance” – all code words for the profession. Others are more straightforward and simply state “dissertation writing.” It is not easy work, but the demand is there. And with many universities turning a blind eye, demand for such services is growing.
Too hard, too little time
Unlike some students who prefer presenting their own work, many diploma, bachelor and masters students present bought work, often paid for by their parents or sponsors. For many of these students, it is all about passing and nothing else.
After finishing university, I moved into journalism and decided to explore just how widespread this practice is. Once a well-kept secret, some claim it is becoming an accepted practice. Students I spoke to in almost every university in town acknowledged that cheating was a problem.
Some students say they use this service because they lack sufficient time to complete their course work and research. A few others confessed that they were in fact unable to complete difficult assignments.
James Odongo, a second-year student of social science at Makerere University, blamed cheating on a poor educational system that he said is more theoretical than practical.
“Research and course work assistants are there because the students need them. Our educational system like here in Makerere University is poor. It is more theoretical than practical and when the students begin the practical work like doing dissertations, they cannot manage and so they seek assistance,” Odongo said.
Dorothy, a third-year Tourism student at Makerere University admitted giving out her work to experts for a fee.
“I am currently working on my dissertation, but I do not do it myself because I can’t do it,” Dorothy admitted.
According to Richard, a research assistant operating around KIU, “many students cannot do their own work because there are few lecturers who can teach research methods.” He added that weak university policies have further contributed to the increase in number of students seeking assistance in their course work and research.
“Students are curious people who will always try to find out whether something works or not. And this is the reason as to why some go there,” said Professor Eria Olowo Onyango, Head of Research in the Department of Sociology at Makerere University.
It is not surprising that the profitability of the research business has even attracted lecturers. Many students have lecturers do their work because once the research is done, the student stands a high chance of scoring a high mark compared to other students struggling to produce their own quality work.
Who is the cheater?
Professor Edward K Kirumira, Dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences at Makerere University, also blames this habit of cheating on Uganda’s education system which is based on grade and not quality. He said that the presence of many private schools in Uganda has contributed to increased cheating in schools.
“School heads want their students to pass and they will do what it takes to have them pass. These students are trained to cheat and when they reach universities, they continue cheating. You can not straighten a bent tree when it is old or else you will break it,” said Kirumira.
However Professor Onyango denied that lecturers are involved in the business.
“I do not believe that lecturers are engaged in doing research for students. However if they are engaged, then it is unfortunate,” Onyango said. “There is no student who can pay me to do research. If I do this, then I am undermining my profession.”
Professor Kirumira admitted that there are lecturers who do work for their students.
“Lecturers are human beings and they are capable of doing anything. Man eats where he works,” he added.
Although Professors Onyango and Kirumira are aware of cheating in universities, professor Mohammed Ndaula, the Vice Chancellor of Kampala International University (KIU), denied cases of cheating in KIU.
“I am not aware of any soliciting on-campus of students seeking assistance to their assignments,” said Ndaula. “This has never happened here at KIU and if we were aware, then we would have taken serious caution.”
On whether lecturers at KIU receive money from students to their work, Ndaula believes it is a mere allegation.
“I am aware of such forms of cheating happening in other universities where post-graduate students for example buy already done work and just present to their universities,” said Ndaula.
A professor in KIU who preferred not to be named admitted that cheating is a common phenomenon in every university, KIU included, and that there is nothing that can be done to stop it.
“After graduating in different disciplines, many students do not easily get jobs and they end up opening bureaus from where they offer services to their counterparts,” he said. “It is only when we stop giving out course work and research to students that we can control cheating in universities,” the professor added.
How to stop it
The solution to cheating in universities and other higher institutions of learning is not yet certain.
According to Professor Onyango: “We do not need to crack down on the symptoms but the roots of the problem by strengthening the quality- assurance committee that controls the education quality in the universities like Makerere.”
Onyango also believes cheating is an example set by officials. “There is general moral decay in the society and it all begins from the top. If we cannot penalize those who steal money like from the Global Fund meant for fighting HIV/ AIDS and malaria, then how are going to penalize cheaters?” he questioned.
Professor Kirumira said that the Ministry of Education needs to implement a new policy on cheating. He also suggested that parents should get involved in providing quality education in Uganda.
“Parents need to play a grassroot role in stopping their children from cheating by not giving them money to pay for the assistance,” Kirumira said.
On a recent walk through Makerere, I noticed that most of the signs advertising such services had been taken down. It seems that the university has embarked on a clean-up campaign. Whether this campaign extends into lecture halls is another matter.
If nothing is done to curb this practice, then a degree from a Ugandan university will gain an unfortunate reputation of being the best education money can buy.
by Geoffrey Ochwo