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The scourge of corruption around the world remains a source of serious political and social concern everywhere. In Africa, where corruption is rampant, it is estimated to cost as much as 25 % of the continent’s annual GDP. 

Corruption knows no boundaries, albeit type and range may differ from one context to another. The education sector has always been vulnerable to the practices and ethics that occur outside academe, but increasingly the sector has indulged its own rampant corruptionDespite the dearth of research on various manifestations of academic corruption in Ethiopia, a handful of research projects conducted at a few public universities and mounting anecdotal evidence show that academic corruption is on the rise and becoming a source of concern in a sector whose public credibility depends on integrity and ethical practice. 


While the rampant nature of academic corruption among students has been written about and appears in various guises, an alarming new development is the involvement of university faculty and staff in various degrees of corrupt activity. 

One common practice across the higher education sector is the degree of teacher absenteeism. Where institutional control is weaker, permanent faculty in higher education institutions moonlight in the private sector or in other public or private universities where teaching services are needed at the expense of their responsibilities to their mother institutions.

Even more concerning are the reports of instructors accused of demonstrating preferential and discriminatory treatment of students based on personal and family relations, ethnicity, religion, political affiliation when evaluating students. This is done through practices such as “exam leaking” or providing an inflated grade to a “favoured” student. Requesting sexual favors from female students in exchange for grades is another custom that,sadly, still occurs. 

Though public institutions may commit similar actions a significant number of private higher institutions are accused of offering inflated grades to their students to keep them in the pipeline (and paying fees in the case of private universities) until the completion of their studies. 

Another unethical practice is the ghostwriting of term papers and theses in which staff are involved. The number of assignments that have been “outsourced” and subsequently submitted for a class by students may be difficult to verify but the proliferation of this practice is suggested by the number of advertisements found near campuses that offer services for the production of different kinds of papers and theses for a fee. While the motivations need to be further studied, young university staff teaching at various institutions of higher learning are often inclined to participate in the ghostwriting of papers.

Faculty are being promoted to a professorship when their publication history includes substandard work or predatory journals, journals known for publishing articles in return for a fee and with limited, if any, peer review. In a recent study undertaken at one public university, a significant number of faculty promotions were discovered to have been confirmed to professors who had created a publication record by following this route. Anecdotal evidence further indicates that this strategy for promotion is especially common in higher institutions where it is known that articles presented as promotion qualifications are not checked. In a similar vein, a few private higher education institutions are suspected of giving academic promotions based on substandard work in order to improve the overall profile of their faculty.

A big part of the problem in combating academic corruption is the lack of ethical responsibility at the individual level. This can be compounded by some university staff and authorities who collude to avoid incrimination when accused of corrupt practices.

The spread of unethical practices reflects the lack of explicit regulations that clearly define behaviors that are corrupt and unacceptable. The problem is further aggravated by the absence of mechanisms to enforce even existing regulations when faculty members are suspected of illicit acts. Most universities have legislation that outlines the responsibility of staff in many areas but does not always incorporate some of the new and more ‘innovative’ approaches to cheating. Even when universities decide to take serious measures their decisions can be overridden by civil service laws that constrain the authority of institutions to respond appropriately. However, there are institutions that boast of having strict mechanisms and regulations against malpractice and seem to be handling the issue with greater efficiency, rigor and consistency.

Combating academic corruption

For countries like Ethiopia that identify higher education as their primary means of economic development and poverty reduction, there can be no more serious goal than fighting the impact of academic corruption.

Although corruption needs to be attacked broadly at the national level, strategic efforts must be made within the education sector as well. An important example of progress is the government’s recent crackdown on forged degrees used by thousands of civil servants to secure positions and promotions. There is no reason, for instance, why the same practice should not be repeated at universities with more careful evaluation of the publications submitted for academic promotion since there are a limited number of faculty and a more attentive examination should be an easy task.

Universities are supposed to be places where the future generation is prepared with knowledge and skills but also high ethical standards. University faculty and administration assume a critical role in promoting this ideal and must guard against corruption that inevitably undermines the success of individual students as well as the reputation of higher education institutions. That is why the highest ethical standards should be expected of faculty and staff so that they are in an unassailable position to hold students accountable for their actions.

Concerted action by the Ministry of Education (now Ministry of Science and Technology), higher education institutions or other relevant stakeholders has so far been lacking but is urgently needed to combat the effects of academic corruption. Continuous monitoring and the creation of mechanisms to avoid possible loopholes should be instituted in order to prevent dishonest practices from persisting. While the development of comprehensive rules and regulations at national and institutional levels are indispensable, strict enforcement remains the major challenge. This underscores the need for sharing information across institutions, developing enforceable practices, making a multi-level commitment to weed out existing maladies and preventing their future occurrences in a sector where integrity and honesty determine how successful it can be. 


Wondwosen Tamrat is an associate professor and founding president of St Mary’s University, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.


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