Higher Education: A Hotbed of Corruption?

Hardly any week goes by without an article on corruption in higher education.

July 26, 2015

Hardly any week goes by without the appearance of an article on corruption in higher education. The stories cover not only individual students or faculty but also whole institutions and even countries. And corruption in higher education has even crossed borders and become global. One cannot help asking whether higher education has become the hotbed of corruption.

“Corruption for resources, fame and notoriety place extraordinary pressures on higher education institutions…….In some instances, corruption has invaded whole systems of higher education and threatens the reputation of research products and graduates, regardless of their guilt and innocence”. This quote comes from Transparency International’s 2013 Global Corruption Report: Education. It can well be illustrated by what is apparently happening in Australia. In April 2015, the Four Corners program of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation revealed examples of how the standards of Australian universities are being compromised through corrupt practices, mainly as a result of the pressure on them to recruit foreign students and to ensure that they pass the exams in order to obtain much-needed funds. The examples given included the involvement of fraudulent recruitment agents, universities graduating poorly qualified or unqualified nurses, widespread plagiarism, cheating and exploitation. The program was appropriately labelled ‘Degrees of Deception’. In 2014, a story appeared relating how fraud and corruption within and outside Australia’s immigration services enabled thousands of foreign students to acquire illegal permanent residency visas in Australia, thereby resulting in unemployment of Australian graduates.

Corruption appears to be rampant in Russia as well. In September 2014, a paper was published in the online journal International Education Studies, describing the alarming situation of corruption in modern Russian higher education that might take the form of cheating on entrance exams, paying a bribe to facilitate the admissions process, bribing professors for better grades. Corruption is also suspected among faculty and senior administrators who may clandestinely negotiate any number of benefits for themselves.  It mentions that nearly 50% of the student intake of 7.5 million in 2008/2009 academic year had to face corruption and adds that “the corruption component of the whole industry could be compared with the budget of a small country”. The paper gives examples of the wide range of corrupt practices in higher education, mentioning the case of a Dean who accepted a bribe of €30,000 for a PhD admission, and the feedback from the Moscow Police that some 30-40 Professors are caught each year for accepting bribes for good grades.  

Africa, of course, has its fair share of corruption in higher education. It is reported that in May 2015, South African authorities shut down 42 bogus colleges and universities that were offering fake and unaccredited programs, including three supposedly US-based universities offering degrees in 15 days. In Nigeria, which has the largest higher education system in Africa, areas where corruption occurs most frequently among academic staff are in promotions, falsified research for publication in journals, fake journals, obligating students to buy texts written by the professor and other corrupt practices related to publications.   Some professors indulge extortion of money for handouts and marks, and sexual harassment. In a 2012 anonymous survey among 475 students in three East African universities, about a third of the students admitted to plagiarism and to fabrication of references, 25% to collusion in an examination to communicate answers, and 5% to impersonating someone else in an examination. Even a small country like Mauritius has not been immune to corruption. A couple of supposedly branch campuses of private Indian universities, set up in Mauritius without the necessary approval of Indian authorities and offering degrees that would not be recognized in Mauritius or India, are in the process of being closed down.

The sale of fake degree certificates of well-established universities and the operation of institutions that provide degrees with hardly any period of study, commonly known as degree mills, are now well-known. There are reported cases of even politicians, religious leaders and other senior officials in various countries, developed and developing, who have purchased fake degrees. Most of the degree mills are located in North America and Europe, while others are scattered globally in hidden locations. So far, attempts at stopping the operation of degree mills have had limited success. UNESCO has created a portal that lists all the recognized higher education institutions in different regions of the world. While this is helpful, a more aggressive approach would have been to create a ‘blacklist’ of known and identified degree mills. No organization has so far established and made public such a list, no doubt fearing legal and political repercussions.

But perhaps the most shocking corruption scandal, known as the Vyapam scam, has just surfaced in India. Vyapam is a government body in the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh and is responsible for conducting entrance examinations for government jobs and for admissions to higher education institutions, including the much sought-after medical colleges. There had been earlier reports of irregularities in Vyapam but until recently no one had imagined the scale of the admission and recruitment scam, involving politicians, businessmen, senior officials and some 2,500 impersonators taking exams in the name of weaker students. More than 2,000 people have been arrested. Worse, tens of people directly involved in the scam have died, some in suspected cases of murder and suicide. The matter has now been referred to India’s Central Bureau of Investigation.

It is high time now to declare war on corruption in higher education. Action must be taken at multiple fronts: institutional, national, regional and global. There are already organizations addressing some of the issues, such as UNESCO’s International Institute for Educational Planning (IIEP) and the US-based Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA). But there is a need to set up, perhaps by UNESCO, of a consortium of relevant national, regional and international organizations to devise appropriate strategies, policies and actions for combating the scourge. The guiding principle for the consortium should be that higher education is neither a business nor an industry, but a social good impregnated with values. The war on corruption in higher education must be vigorously fought and won; if not, the national and global consequences could be too serious to be even contemplated. 


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