Taking on corruption in international higher education

A spectre of corruption is haunting the global campaign towards higher education internationalisation. An overseas degree is increasingly valuable, so it is not surprising that commercial ventures have found opportunities in the internationalisation landscape.

New private actors have entered the sector, with the sole goal of making money. Some of them are less than honourable. Some universities look at internationalisation as a contribution to the financial ‘bottom line’, in an era of financial cutbacks.

The rapidly expanding private higher education sector globally is largely for-profit. In a few cases, such as Australia and increasingly the United Kingdom, national policies concerning higher education internationalisation tilt towards earning income for the system.

Countries whose academic systems suffer from elements of corruption are increasingly involved in international higher education – sending large numbers of students abroad, establishing relationships with overseas universities and other activities.

Corruption is not limited to countries that may have a reputation for less than fully circumspect academic practices, but that problem occurs globally.

Recent scandals

Several scandals have recently been widely reported in the United States, including the private unaccredited ‘Tri-Valley University’, a sham institution that admitted and collected tuition fees from foreign students.

That institution did not require students to attend class, but rather funnelled them into the labour market, under the noses of US immigration authorities. In addition, several public universities have been caught admitting students with sub-standard academic qualifications.

Quality assurance agencies in the UK have uncovered problems with ‘franchised’ British-degree programmes, and similar scandals have occurred in Australia.

A prominent example is the University of Wales, which was the second largest university in the UK, with 70,000 students enrolled in 130 colleges around the world. It had to close its highly profitable degree validation programme, which accounted for nearly two-thirds of institutional revenue.

With international higher education now a multibillion-dollar industry around the world – with individuals, countries and institutions depending on its income, prestige and access – it is not surprising that corruption is a growing problem.

If something is not done to ensure probity in international relationships in higher education, an entire structure – built on trust, a commitment to mutual understanding and benefits for students and researchers – a commitment built informally over decades, will collapse. There are signs that the structure is already in deep trouble.

Unscrupulous agents

A serious and unsolved problem is the prevalence of unscrupulous agents and recruiters funnelling unqualified students to universities worldwide.

A recent example was featured in Britain’s Daily Telegraph in late June of an agent in China caught on video, offering to write admissions essays and to present other questionable help in admission to prominent British universities.

No one knows the extent of the problem, although consistent news reports indicate that it is widespread, particularly in countries that send large numbers of students abroad, including China and India.

Without question, agents now receive millions of dollars in commissions paid by universities and, in some egregious cases, money from the clients as well. In the University of Nottingham’s case the percentage of students recruited through agents has increased from 19% of the intake in 2005 to 25% in 2011, with more than £1 million (US$1.5 million) going to the agents.

Altered and fake documents

Altered and fake documents have long been a problem in international admissions. Computer design and technology exacerbate it. Fraudulent documents have become a minor industry in some parts of the world, and many universities are reluctant to accept documents from institutions that have been tainted with incidents of counterfeit records.

For example, a number of American universities no longer accept applications from some Russian students because of widespread perceptions of fraud, document tampering and other problems.

Document fraud gained momentum due to commission-based agents who have an incentive to ensure that students are ‘packaged’ with impressive credentials, as their commissions depend on successful student placement.

Those responsible for checking the accuracy of transcripts, recommendations and degree certificates face an increasingly difficult task. Students who submit valid documentation are placed at a disadvantage since they are subjected to extra scrutiny.

Examples of tampering with and falsifying results of the Graduate Record Examination and other commonly required international examinations used for admissions have resulted in the nullifying of scores, and even cancelling examinations in some countries and regions, as well as rethinking whether online testing is practical.

This situation has made it more difficult for students to apply to foreign universities and has made the task of evaluating students for admission more difficult.

Several countries, including Russia and India, have announced that they will be using the Times Higher Education and Academic Ranking of World Universities (Shanghai rankings) as a way of determining the legitimacy of foreign universities for recognising foreign degrees, determining eligibility for academic collaborations and other aspects of international higher education relations.

This is unfortunate, since many excellent academic institutions are not included in these rankings, which mostly measure research productivity. No doubt, Russia and India are concerned about the quality of foreign partners and find the rankings convenient.

Visa rules

Several ‘host’ countries have tightened up rules and oversight of cross-border student flows in response to irregularities and corruption.

The US Department of State announced in June 2012 that visa applicants from India would be subjected to additional scrutiny as a response to the ‘Tri-Valley scandal’. Earlier both Australia and Britain changed rules and policy.

Corruption is making internationalisation more difficult for the entire higher education sector. It is perhaps significant that continental Europe seems to have been less affected by shady practices – perhaps in part because international higher education is less commercialised and profit driven.

The internet has become the ‘Wild West’ of academic misrepresentation and chicanery. It is easy to set up an impressive website and exaggerate the quality or lie about an institution.

Some institutions claim accreditation that does not exist. There are even ‘accreditation mills’ to accredit universities that pay a fee. A few include pictures of impressive-looking campuses that are simply photoshopped from other universities.

What can be done?

With international higher education now big business and with commercial gain an ever-increasing motivation for international initiatives, the problems mentioned are likely to persist. However, a range of initiatives can ameliorate the situation.

The higher education community can recommit to the traditional ‘public good’ values of internationalisation, although current funding challenges may make this difficult in some countries.

The International Association of Universities’ recent report, Affirming Academic Values in Internationalisation of Higher Education, is a good start. The essential values of the European Union’s Bologna Initiatives are also consistent with the best values of internationalisation.

Accreditation and quality assurance are essential for ensuring that basic quality is recognised. Agencies and the international higher education community must ensure that universities are carefully evaluated and that the results of assessment are easily available to the public and to international stakeholders.

Governmental, regional and international agencies must coordinate their efforts and become involved in maintaining standards and protecting the image of the higher education sector.

Contradictions abound. For example, the US Department of State’s Education USA seeks to protect the sector, while the Department of Commerce sees higher education just as an export commodity. Government agencies in the UK and Australia seem also to be mainly pursuing commercial interests.

Consciousness-raising about ethics and good practice in international higher education and awareness of emerging problems and continuing challenges deserve continuing attention.

Prospective students and their families, institutional partners considering exchanges and research, and other stakeholders must be more sophisticated and vigilant concerning decision-making.

The Boston College Center for International Higher Education’s Corruption Monitor is the only clearinghouse for information relating directly to corrupt practices; additional sources of information and analysis would be helpful.

The first step in solving a major challenge to higher education internationalisation is recognition of the problem itself.

The higher education community is by no means united, and growing commercialisation makes some people reluctant to act in ways that may threaten profits. There are individuals within the academic community who lobby aggressively to legitimise dubious practices.

Yet, if nothing is done, the higher education sector worldwide will suffer and the impressive strides taken toward internationalisation will be threatened.

* Philip G Altbach is Monan professor and director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College in the United States. Email: The author acknowledges comments from Rahul Choudaha and Liz Reisberg.