Nigeria’s ‘miracle examination centres’ undermine education: how to stop the rot

This blog was written by a team of researchers of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, partner of the SOAS Anti-Corruption Evidence Consortium, and Dr Pallavi Roy of SOAS-ACE. It was originally published on The Conversation on 2 February 2022. It is republished here under a Creative Commons licence. 

In Nigeria, the West African Examination Council and National Examination Council are the agencies that conduct the Senior Secondary Certificate Examinations. The results serve as evidence of completion of secondary school in Nigeria. They are required to qualify for some employment opportunities and contest certain political offices. They’re also needed to secure admission into higher education institutions within and outside of Nigeria.

So, a high value is placed on success in these exams. Some candidates use illegal and unethical means to pass. They are aided in this by the so-called “miracle examination centres” – special secondary schools that encourage such malpractices. These centres have institutionalised cheating in the school certificate examinations.

Despite efforts by government and examination bodies to clamp down on them, they continue to thrive and enjoy the patronage of people from different classes of society.

Nigeria’s education sector has been listed among the five most corrupt sectors in Nigeria. The exam centres’ practices cast doubt on the quality of students admitted into higher education, the quality of the workforce and that of political leaders.

Despite the harmful impact these centres have, they haven’t been studied systematically. As part of the Anti-Corruption Evidence Research Consortium led by SOAS University of London, we conducted a systematic review of the existing literature about their nature, the drivers, and proposed solutions to the problem. Our work is the first comprehensive study into the issue.

We hope that our review will help researchers and policymakers to understand and combat exam malpractice.

Our research

The SOAS Anti-Corruption Evidence approach aims to find out what could motivate people to change their rule-breaking behaviour in specific contexts and also if these actors have the power to carry out this change. This is unlike conventional anti-corruption strategies that simply try to enforce rules.

In line with this approach, we examined the drivers of the centres and the opportunities for feasible solutions by grassroots actors interested in bringing about change. These actors include parents, students, school owners, teachers and community members. Examination bodies, ministries of education, security agencies and the government can also make meaningful efforts.

Our literature review was supported by visits to communities in Abuja, Anambra, Edo and Kogi States, where the centres are prevalent. We also held workshops and interviewed more than 175 people, including providers and users of the exam centre “services”.

Operations and drivers of ‘miracle centres’

We found that the “miracle centres” tend to be at private schools (though some are public). They either help leak examination questions in advance, or compromise the examinations once the question papers arrive at the venue.

Parental and peer pressure, and inefficient teaching and learning practices support the existence of these centres. Other factors are complicit school management practices and community protection of rogue schools and their operators.

The most immediate drivers include the activities of students, parents and community members or groups. Some community members collude with popular centres by diverting external supervisors or inspectors.

Profit is a major driver of private schools generally and the centres particularly. Due to the high patronage, the prices of their rogue services could be over 300% the actual registration fees as stipulated by the examination bodies. Tutorial centres supply candidates to the most trusted “miracle centres” and the “success” stories of their candidates attract more students to register with them.

The remote drivers of these practices revolve around educational policies, institutions, and the formal structures guiding school-related activities. Rogue examiners employed to supervise the examinations use their position to shield illegal activities, acting with owners of the “miracle centres”. Our review found that punishment for this was seldom reported, which suggests that institutions might be complicit.

School curricula upon which the examinations are based appear to be difficult and sometimes not taught in class. This is another factor enabling the centres to flourish.

There are also concerns about political influences protecting this education ecosystem. The quality of funding for the education sector is also abysmal.

What needs to be done?

Top-down enforcement of rules, by withholding or cancelling results and blacklisting suspicious centres, seems to be the approach favoured by examination councils and the ministry of education. But the centres continue to exist, so it is not working.

There is evidence that when local actors are properly engaged, they can catalyse change and ensure that perpetrators are duly sanctioned. For instance, civil society groups, faith-based organisations and community leaders should be involved in campaigns against “miracle centres”. Parent-teacher associations, National Youth Service Corps members and students’ clubs should also be involved. Private schools’ proprietors can sanction erring members, and form advocacy groups that could get government to act. Whistle blowing mechanisms can be made available to the public for swift reports of suspicious schools.

Overall, the goal is to see people enforce rules in their self-interest rather than because of the fear of sanctions from authorities.