Corruption in higher education: a wake-up call

July 31, 2016 Tony Bates

Staff at Pavol Jozef Safarik University, Kosice, Slovakia were accused of taking bribes to admit students to its Medical School

Staff at Pavol Jozef Safarik University, Kosice, Slovakia have been accused of taking bribes to admit students to the Medical School

Daniel, J. (2016) Combatting Corruption and Enhancing Integrity: A Contemporary Challenge for the Quality and Integrity of Higher Education: Advisory Statement for Effective International Practice: Washington DC/Paris: CHEA/UNESCO

Daniel, J. (2016) Lutter contre la corruption et renforcer l’intégrité : un défi contemporain pour la qualité et la crédibilité de l’enseignement supérieur: Déclaration consultative pour des pratiques internationales efficaces Washington DC/Paris: CHEA/UNESCO

Those of us working in online learning are often berated by academic colleagues about the possible lack of integrity in online learning due to issues such as plagiarism, diploma mills, or ‘easy’ qualifications lacking rigorous academic process. Such cases do occur, but having read this document, it seems that the more traditional areas of higher education are prone to far more egregious forms of corruption.

Where do we find corruption?

At the end of this report, there is a list of references chronicling corruption in higher education in Australia, China, the Czech Republic, Egypt, France, Germany, India, Kenya, Nigeria, Russia, Slovakia, South Africa, and the USA. And those are just the ones who have been recently caught.

The report puts it bluntly:

This Advisory Statement is a wake-up call to higher education worldwide – particularly to quality assurance bodies. HEIs [higher education institutions], governments, employers and societies generally, in both developed and developing countries, are far too complacent about the growth of corrupt practices, either assuming that these vices occur somewhere else or turning a deaf ear to rumours of malpractice in their own organizations.

What kinds of corruption?

You name it, it’s in this report. In fact, the report describes 29 different kinds of corrupt practices. Here are just a few examples:

  • giving institutions licenses, granting degree-awarding powers, or accrediting programmes in return for bribes or favours.
  • altering student marks in return for sexual or other favours.

  • administrative pressure on academics to alter marks for institutional convenience.

  • publishing false recruitment advertising.

  • impersonation of candidates and ghost writing of assignments.

  • political pressures on higher education institutions to award degrees to public figures.

  • publication by supervisors of research by graduate students without acknowledgement.

  • higher education institutions publishing misleading news releases or suppressing inconvenient news.

Who is sounding the alarm?

Although the writer of the report is Sir John Daniel, a fellow Research Associate at Contact North, and former Vice-Chancellor, the Open University, Assistant Director-General for Education at UNESCO and President of the Commonwealth of Learning, the report draws on meetings of expert groups from the following organizations:

  • UNESCO’s International Institute for Educational Planning (IIEP)
  • the International Quality Group of the US Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA/CIQG).

What’s causing this?

Corruption is as much about lack of ethical behaviour and rampant self-interest as about policies and practices. The report though points to two key factors that are contributing to corruption:

  • the huge appetite for higher education among the young populations of the developing world puts great pressures on admissions processes;
  • the steadily developing sophistication and borderless nature of information and communications technology (ICT) has expanded the opportunities for fraudsters in all walks of life.

What are the recommended solutions?

There are of course no easy solutions here. The report points out that there are both ‘upstream’ possibilities for corruption at the level of government and accrediting agencies, and downstream, from individuals desperate to get into and succeed within an increasingly competitive higher education system. In the middle are the institutions themselves.

The report separates its recommendations for combatting corruption then into several target areas:

  1. the regulation of higher education systems
  2.  the teaching role of higher education institutions
  3. student admissions and recruitment
  4. student assessment
  5. credentials and qualifications
  6. research theses and publications
  7. through increased public awareness

It is interesting that while the report emphasizes the importance of internal quality assurance processes within HEIs, it also notes that the more ‘mature’ an HE system becomes, the more external quality assurance agencies, such as accreditation boards and government ministries, tend to pass quality assurance responsibilities back to the institutions. The report notes that students themselves have a very important role to play in demanding transparency and whistle-blowing.

A call to action

The report ends with the following:

  • governments, quality assurance agencies and HEIs worldwide must become more aware of the threat that corruption poses to the credibility, effectiveness and quality of higher education at a time when its importance as a driver of global development has never been higher.

  • external quality assurance agencies should do more to review the risks of corruption in their work and HEIs must ensure that their IQA [internal quality assurance] frameworks are also fit for the purpose of combatting corruption.

  • training and supporting staff in identifying and exposing corrupt practices should be stepped up.

  • creating networks of organizations that are fighting corruption and greater North-South collaboration in capacity building for this purpose are highly desirable.

So next time some sanctimonious academic sneers at the academic integrity of online learning, just point them in the direction of this report.

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