The Chronicle of Higher Education
October 1, 2013
Corruption in Higher Education Appears to Be on the Rise Globally, Report Says
By Aisha Labi
Corruption in higher education is nothing new, probably existing since the first college opened its doors. But as more people around the world seek college degrees, there’s evidence that bribes for grades, admissions fraud, and other corrupt practices are on the rise.
“We’re certainly discovering more of it,” said Stephen P. Heyneman, a professor of international-education policy at Vanderbilt University and a former education official with the World Bank. “Whether that’s because we’re paying more attention to it or because it’s worsening, I don’t know.”
In a report released on Tuesday by Transparency International, a nongovernmental organization, Mr. Heyneman and other experts examine trends and examples of corruption in education, from primary schools to public university systems. The publication, “Global Corruption Report: Education,” is one in a series of reports the group produces annually on corruption around the world, but it’s the first to focus on education.
Corruption in higher education very likely has been exacerbated by the rapid expansion of the sector in recent decades, transforming what were once elite systems to mass higher-education systems, the report says. That transformation, coupled with the growing internationalization of higher education, has triggered significant problems.
“In some instances, corruption has invaded whole systems of higher education and threatens the reputation of research products and graduates, regardless of their guilt or innocence,” Mr. Heyneman writes in the report.
‘Denuded and Corrupted’
The most corrupt regions include Southeast Asia and many of the Central Asian republics, where Mr. Heyneman describes entire systems as “denuded and corrupted from within.” One instructor in Kazakhstan told him how her dean had asked to borrow her grade book before she administered final examinations. When he returned it to her, the grades for half of her students were already filled in.
In another instance, a Ph.D. student Mr. Heyneman had gotten to know over several visits explained why she had not yet received her degree even though she had defended her dissertation long before: She didn’t have enough money to pay the chairman of her dissertation committee the bribe he was demanding.
Often students are required not only to read the costly textbook a professor has written and assigned to all his students, but also to prove that they actually had purchased the book by presenting receipts.
The different kinds of corruption he has encountered led Mr. Heyneman to conclude that “the problem of corruption is endemic but is not identical in different parts of the world.”
In the former Soviet states, bribes and other forms of monetary corruption are the norm. In sub-Saharan Africa, sexual exploitation of students by faculty members and administrators is pervasive. In other countries, personal corruption is more prevalent, with family members pressing an instructor to award a grade or pass a student as a favor.
The report describes plagiarism by students, a pressing concern for many American colleges, as a kind of personal corruption.
‘The Elephant in the Room’
While the specific nature of the corruption is idiosyncratic to individual regions, the effects of corruption often cross national borders. The large numbers of Chinese graduate students in the United States, for example, have made corruption in China a pressing issue for many American institutions. The students routinely submit personal statements of purpose with their applications that they have not written, Mr. Heyneman said, and they have cheated on the Toefl and other language-proficiency tests as well.
“This is a major diplomatic issue for both China and the U.S,” said Mr. Heyneman. “China depends for its economy on having well-educated people, and it spends hundreds of millions of dollars on subsidizing students who study abroad. The problem is, many come unprepared.”
The problem is so pervasive, he said, that he knows of admissions directors who have set up special screening programs for Chinese applicants, even going so far as to hire external companies to check for inconsistencies in applications.
According to Mr. Heyneman, corruption also threatens Europe’s Bologna Process, the long-running effort to harmonize degree cycles and university systems across 47 European countries. My Heyneman said that corruption is “the elephant in the room that nobody talks about.” In his estimate, the push to make degrees equivalent and courses transferrable, without dealing with the corruption issues in some places, “is going to break apart the Bologna Process.”
Despite that bleak assessment, Mr. Heyneman does see some evidence of the tide’s turning against corruption. Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, for example, had high levels of corruption after they won independence from Soviet control, but made sweeping efforts to fix the problem as part of their efforts to join the European Union.
And even in the most corrupt systems, said Mr. Heyneman, “it’s not fair to say that all faculty are corrupt. There are moral professors, often women, who take their moral rudder very personally, and they avoid corruption of all kinds.”