Bakhtawar Rahimoon is heartbroken. A few months ago, she secured 79 per cent in her intermediate exam and took a mandatory entry test on October 22 this year to get into a public sector medical college. After taking the test, she was very confident she would pass. But when the result was announced, she did not see her name on the list of 2,100 or so students found eligible for admission to the Sindh government’s medical colleges and universities.
Bakhtawar believes she was cheated. Some ineligible students passed the test ahead of her, she alleges, because they had access to the question paper and its solution sheet beforehand. “The question paper and its answer key got leaked a day before the test,” she says on the phone from Umerkot, a small city 308 kilometres north-east of Karachi. Her father, Abdul Khalique Rahimoon, claims having received an offer that he, too, could get the leaked paper for his daughter by paying 200,000 rupees. “I refused because I did not want her to pass the test through unfair means,” he says.
There were also reports of other irregularities. Out of the test’s 100 questions, at least 14 were either not meant to be there or were beyond the scope of the syllabus the students had studied. In a couple of cities, the test started later than its scheduled time. In some, proctor arrangements were inadequate, allowing some students to use mobile phones and cheat sheets to solve the questions. Another major complaint was that, unlike in the past, the students were not allowed to take the question paper back home to tally their answers with the solution sheet that is usually uploaded online soon after the test. This, many of them said, deprived them of the opportunity to know if they had answered the questions correctly, and could have been a ploy to manipulate the results.
Hundreds of students held protest rallies soon after the test in many cities and towns across Sindh to demand that its results be annulled. Some filed a petition at the Sindh High Court, pleading for a retest.
To address widespread dissatisfaction with the test, the Sindh government set up a six-member inquiry committee headed by the special secretary of the health department, Aijaz Ahmed Mahesar. After thorough investigation, the committee recommended the cancellation of the result – which the government did on November 11 – and issued a damning report about the mismanagement and gross irregularities in how the test was conducted.
“Lapses in the secrecy of the question paper made us recommend the result’s cancellation,” Mahesar says in an interview. He also confirms that the test commenced 10 minutes late in Karachi and 35 minutes late in Hyderabad. There were also other flaws such as the inclusion of incorrect questions, he adds.
The committee did not find concrete evidence to prove that the question paper and its answer key were leaked to select candidates. But, he says, these allegations could be true given how subsidised medical education is at public sector institutions. The entire expense for a degree in medicine is 700,000 to 800,000 rupees at government colleges and universities while the same degree costs more than 12 million rupees at a private institution, he says. Some parents, he says, may be tempted to spend a few hundred thousand rupees to get access to a leaked question paper to give their children an advantage in passing the test.
The entry test is conducted by the National Testing Service (NTS), a private firm based in Islamabad. Sindh started outsourcing many of its educational entry and employee selection tests to the company in 2009, mainly on the assumption that its system was more efficient and less prone to irregularities and manipulations than the government’s own systems. But, as the probe committee says in its report, the NTS does not have a secure printing press of its own. It also does not have staff trained in ensuring the security and secrecy of digital and printed documents. In fact, its question papers remained with at least two people who were not even its employees for a considerable amount of time.
“The question paper is set at a unit in Abbottabad from where a soft copy is emailed to the in-charge of [a] printing press at Islamabad,” the committee found out. When its members visited the press, “it was discovered to be owned by a private individual named Zubair who receives the question paper and its key through emails and then saves it on his computer before deleting the documents from the server. He also has his partner in the press, namely Rizwan, and these secret documents in their finished and final state remain in the custody of those two private individuals for five days, raising a big question on the secrecy of the process, which is a paramount feature of any testing agency.” The report identified the press as well as the Abbottabad unit as possible sources of the leaked paper.
Even more damaging for the NTS, a National Accountability Bureau (NAB) team raided its headquarters in Islamabad soon after allegations of irregularities in the entry test surfaced. NAB officials arrested some of the firm’s employees and took many of its documents and computers with them. During initial investigations, says a senior NAB official, it was revealed that question paper leaks had been a routine matter at the NTS. The other problem detected in the company’s operations pertains to its claim that it is affiliated with the Comsats Institute of Information Technology (CIIT). This is simply not the case. The institute has been set up under a federal law that makes no mention of a testing service to be run as its affiliated entity, the official adds. “We want to investigate how a private organisation has become a major testing service for the federal and provincial governments without fulfilling any legal requirements.”
The NTS bosses initially denied that a NAB team had raided their office. They held a press conference in Islamabad on October 31 and claimed the raid was conducted by the directorate of intelligence and investigation of the Federal Board of Revenue (FBR) over tax-related problems. A few days later, the NTS office was raided again — this time actually by the FBR. The company said the raid was conducted in connection with some unresolved tax issues and court cases. According to NTS chief executive officer, Dr Sherzada Khan, the raiding team also “erroneously” seized a few personal computers and some records unrelated to taxation.
A comprehensive inquiry into the company’s affairs may open a Pandora’s box. If it is found guilty of having mismanaged and manipulated its testing system, then that will have a direct and major impact not only on entrance to medical education institutions but elsewhere too. Thousands of employees at the federal and provincial levels have been appointed over the last five or so years after having passed the NTS test. They may find out that their employment was not in order. The government could face a lot of litigation if it does not sack those employees but, at the same time, it may encounter resistance and protests from those required to be sacked.
Some of these legal issues have already cropped up, though on a smaller scale. The students who cleared Sindh’s medical entry test have moved the Sindh High Court against the cancellation of results and the court has agreed to hear their plea. What will happen if the judges decide in their favour?
Bakhtawar is keeping her fingers crossed.
Additional reporting by Umer Farooq
This article was published in the Herald's December 2017 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.
The writer is a staffer at the Herald.