November 15, 2021

Failure to protect national exams from thieves and the right to education: An observation


What does last week’s exam leakage entail in terms of the Government’s obligation to respect and protect the right to education of students?

Failure to protect national exams from thieves and the right to education: An observation

By: Michael Mengistu Woldeyes

Last week’s Ethiopian university entrance examination which was administered by the Ministry of Education was struck by exam leakages on social media. Though the Ministry announced that “the exam has never been leaked by anyone, anywhere and by any means”, news outlets such as TIKVAH Ethiopia and Addis Zeybe reported the rumor of leaked exams to be true. TIKVAH Ethiopia wrote that it had collected enough evidence to show that history, chemistry, biology, and civics, and ethical education exams were leaked before the exams started. It also showed the images of the leaked exams on its telegram channel and wrote that it had contacted the Ministry for answers. It is clear that this phenomenon is a disappointment for many students who studied hard for the exam in order to join the university and field of study of their choice. This article tries to analyze what last week’s exam leakage entails in terms of the Government’s obligation to respect and protect the right to education of students. 

Failure to protect national exams from thieves and the right to education 

The first instrument to recognize education as a right was the Universal Declaration on Human Rights which proclaimed that “everyone has the right to education” (article 26). The right is also enshrined under the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) (article 13), and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (article 17). The United Nations Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (CteeESCR) gives an elaborate definition to the right under its general comment to article 13. According to the committee “a well-educated, enlightened and active mind, able to wander freely and widely, is one of the joys and rewards of human existence”. And the most fundamental aim of education is that it “shall be directed to the full development of the human personality”. This statement is supplemented by article 29 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child and Article 11 of the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child. In order to fulfill this and produce enlightened and active minds, States are required to make education available, accessible, acceptable, and adaptable. 

One of the obligations of States under the right to education, as article 13 (2) (c) of the ICESCR declares, is making “higher education … equally accessible to all, on the basis of capacity, by every appropriate means”. By virtue of this article, States are required to make higher education physically available and accessible to students so far as their resources allow. However, the article stresses that students will be allowed to enter universities or colleges based on their ability to absorb the education they were given at lower levels, and one of the most accepted ways to assess their capacity is through university/college entrance examinations. Therefore, it is clear that students should be given equal access and opportunity to exams when their capacity to enter higher education is evaluated. This means that there should be no discrimination whatsoever between the candidates for the exam. To avoid discrimination, all candidates must receive the same question for the same subject of study and there should be a uniform time of examination for all. Nevertheless, special attention may be given to some students based on their physical and mental capacity and/or their social background.

According to the Cte ESCR, States have the obligation to respect, protect, and fulfill the right to education including making higher education available and accessible on the basis of capacity as explained in the preceding paragraph.  The Committee states that:

The obligation to respect requires States parties to avoid measures that hinder or prevent the enjoyment of the right to education. The obligation to protect requires States parties to take measures that prevent third parties from interfering with the enjoyment of the right to education. The obligation to fulfill (facilitate) requires States to take positive measures that enable and assist individuals and communities to enjoy the right to education.

As a result, when it comes to evaluating the capacity of students by examination, states have to protect students from third parties who try to obstruct the process of the examination. For example, the State has to make sure that the exam will not be stolen and distributed. And even if the exam is stolen, the State has to provide new exam questions in order to successfully evaluate the capacity of students. If the State fails to do both, those students who actually have the capacity to join universities may not even pass the exam as a result of grade inflation. Hence, the right to education of these capable students will be violated because of the State’s failure to properly evaluate their capacity.

I believe that what happened during last week’s Ethiopian university entrance examination will hinder the Ministry of Education from properly evaluating students’ ability to join universities. As stated earlier, the State failed to deter thieves from stealing and distributing the exam. The Ministry of Education even declared that the exam was not leaked. However, several pieces of evidence as revealed by news outlets such as TIKVAH Ethiopia show that some of the exams were stolen and distributed on social media. Based on the explanation given in this article, the Ministry of Education will be violating the right to education of students if it fails to acknowledge the theft of the exams and act promptly to re-evaluate students. Without such action, years of hard work and integrity will be meaningless for the students, their families, and the country in general. 

About the Author 

Michael received his LL.B. from Addis Ababa University in 2018. He also holds an LL.M. in human rights law from the University of Groningen.  The author can be reached at