When The Economist (July 24-30, 2010, p. 43), one of the world’s most influential magazines, devotes attention to academic fraud in China, the issue has reached a high level of international attention. I wrote about this issue in the broader context of Asia’s efforts to gain global academic leadership in my article “Enter the Dragons? Not so Fast” (Times Higher Education, June 17, 2010, pp. 38-39). The Economist points to a number of egregious examples of academic dishonestly, plagiarism, misuse of academic degrees and awards in China.
One could easily extend this list to include other Asian countries where academic aspirations and the perceived importance of higher education outstrip both resources and an established academic culture. For example, in Pakistan, an investigation of the educational qualifications of members of parliament (there is a regulation that all MPs must have a postsecondary qualification) revealed that almost 200 had fake degrees. Numerous cases of academic fraud, plagiarism, and other examples of malfeasance have been reported in South Korea, Vietnam, and other Asian countries.
While there are no doubt many causes for these problems, one key factor is that an academic culture of honesty and meritocracy has not caught up with the aspirations of these countries. It is one thing to develop universities and focus on building world-class universities. The organization of academic life and developing a culture of meritocracy and norms of probity in research are central. The problem in many places starts with the fact that academic appointments are sometimes not based on merit but rather on personal connections (guanxi), inbreeding (appointing academic staff from among the graduates of the university rather than searching for the best possible candidate in a legitimate and broader search), and in some cases corruption in admissions, testing, and other areas.
Creating an academic culture is not an easy task. Traditions of appointments and promotion may be ingrained in the universities. As the Economist points out, there is more emphasis on quantity than quality in published work. And the emphasis on seniority and respect for authority run very deep in many Asian societies. Universities have not yet figured out how to wed the standard norms of western higher education with Asian values and traditions. This might be impossible — the western paradigm for academic culture and university organization and structure has served as the international benchmark until now but this model may not be suited to all countries or all institutions.
Perhaps the lesson is that while physical infrastructures only requires money, fostering an effective academic culture that supports high quality teaching and research requires more—at the very least, time and thought. Government edicts concerning “world-class” universities will not achieve quick results. What is needed is careful attention to the “soft culture” of higher education — the norms and values created over time that have resulted in the modern research university model. It is worth keeping in mind that the modern research university was not created overnight — it has been evolving since von Humboldt’s founding of the University of Berlin in the early 19th century and the emergence of the American research university at the end of that century.
China, and other Asian countries, need to pay much more attention to the development of an academic culture of integrity and probity — not an easy task. Academic freedom, the creation of a career ladder and evaluation of performance for academics, and recognition of the importance of integrity in all of the workings of the university are essential ingredients. And time is needed for this culture to become ingrained.
One might conclude by pointing out that western universities face serious ethical challenges as well. The increasing corporatization and commercialization of even top universities creates tensions for academic culture. The continuing erosion of the public good mission of universities stimulates further tensions. In many ways, these are challenging times for the academic profession and the culture of research so carefully established over almost two centuries.