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Without question, the very large majority of academic institutions, students, and professors are honest and focused on education and research in difficult times. But one might be tempted to think that higher education is rife with corruption of all kinds. Only recently, the following incidents were reported—South Africa shut down 42 bogus colleges and universities; 210 degree mills were exposed in China; the respected American journal Science withdrew a widely circulated article that was based on faulty data; the American government announced that it is prosecuting 15 Chinese nationals accused of cheating the college entrance examination system in a scam that included false passports (An official said that the problem goes far beyond these students and is not limited to China.).

Lest one think this problem is limited to African and China, The New York Times exposed Axact, a company in Pakistan, as a massive scale degree mill in a front-page article. The company had invented numerous fake universities such as Newford University, and employed more than 2,000 people at its home office in Karachi, Pakistan—all devoted to selling fake degrees and certificates. Fake accreditors and quality assurance agencies were set up to “certify” Axact’s legitimacy.  Following The Times exposé, the Pakistani government launched its own investigation and has since arrested some of those involved—although it is hard to believe that Axact was unknown to authorities there previously. Reports note that American were among the best customers, purchasing large numbers of fake degrees.

In his blog, Higher Education: A Hotbed of Corruption, Goolam Mohamedbhai provides additional examples from Australia, Russia, and South Africa. Many of these examples have international implications as they taint an otherwise very positive trend of the increased student mobility. Still, domestic corruption is probably an even more serious problem with few countries remaining exempt. A series of scandals has rocked the burgeoning for-profit higher education industry in the United States in recent years. Aside from consistent criticisms concerning low quality programs from some providers, investigations by the U.S. government discovered a consistent pattern of the misuse of government-backed loans that allowed many for-profits to admit unqualified students and accept tuition payments made available by these loans, without concern for unprepared students who dropped out in large numbers with significant debt and no degree. The amount of this malfeasance amounted to billions of dollars. Prosecutions have followed. Many for-profit schools found their stock value in decline and enrollment plummeting. Corinthian Colleges, with more than 28 campuses, went out of business, abandoning thousands of students unable to complete their degrees.

What Is the Scope of Academic Corruption?

Of course, plagiarism, cheating on exams, fabricating research, and other misbehavior by students and faculty has gone on, no doubt, since the beginning of time. But as the pressures to obtain a degree, earn high grades, publish in prestigious journals, obtain external funding for research, pursue enrollment for the purpose of revenue increase individuals and institutions will look for easier means to desired ends.

The extent of corruption in higher education is unknown. It is increasingly difficult to define, confirm and catalog the phenomenon. Is there more corruption now than in the past?  It is difficult to measure, but it is certain that the scope, nature and breadth of academic corruption has grown as postsecondary education has expanded and become more commercialized. Sadly, the incentives and rewards that encourage corrupt practices are powerful.  There is no doubt that academic corruption is now a multi-billion dollar industry.  Yet, there is insufficient attention dedicated to uncovering by government officials, the media, and the academic community itself.  Clearly, corruption is not something that anyone is anxious to reveal.  As a result, uncovering corruption is no easy undertaking and often poses risks to inquisitive researchers.  Still, if this trend is to be curtailed, more scrutiny will be needed.


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