Abusing power for private gain – Corruption in academe

It would be nice to believe that in universities, as organisations devoted to discovering and transmitting knowledge, corruption would not be a serious issue. As the Global Corruption Report: Education released on 1 October by Transparency International clearly documents, such a view would be wrong.

While the report examines the nature and prevalence of corruption across the full spectrum of education, a substantial portion of it focuses on higher education, offering a wide range of specific examples, thoughtful analysis of the reasons why corruption persists and ways universities, governments and other stakeholders might respond to curb such abuses.

Transparency International uses a reasonably broad definition of corruption, which applies in both public and private higher education settings – the abuse of entrusted power for private gain.

Four factors that foster corruption

While corruption in higher education is not new, the Global Corruption Report highlights four factors that have converged to create conditions that can foster corrupt practices.

Firstly, in many countries public funding for higher education has lagged. Even in countries in which it has increased, rapid growth in the number of students has sometimes led to a lower per-student allocation. The response, all too often, has been an erosion in salaries and conditions of service for instructional staff.

To compensate, some instructional staff turn to inappropriate behaviour on campus, for example, selling grades or ghost writing papers, or they seek supplemental employment opportunities off campus that draw them away from their university responsibilities.

Secondly, this decline in government support is often paired with an emphasis on universities finding more of their own funding. Faculty members are coming under intensified pressure to increase teaching loads, teach in special weekend courses, secure funded research and commercialise the products of their research.

Such pressure can open the door to temptation, to the extent that some faculty members respond to those pressures by taking inappropriate shortcuts in their work.

Thirdly, as part of expecting universities to raise more of their own resources, universities are being granted greater administrative autonomy. Decisions that were once made by those in a central or provincial ministry are now made by campus- and departmental-level administrators.

While this is widely viewed as a way to improve the relevance of campus-level decisions, it also can, on occasion, translate into more variation in what is regarded as acceptable practice, less rigorous oversight of faculty and staff behaviour, and greater opportunity to bend rules in an effort to burnish the organisational image.

Finally, as universities seek wider recognition and international standing through higher placement in international university rankings, faculty members have come under intensified pressure to conduct research and publish in top-tier journals.

Major research universities in Malaysia, as in other countries, provide generous financial bonuses to those who publish in top journals. While there is nothing inherently wrong with creating incentives to encourage desired faculty behaviour, such pressure can fuel the temptation for faculty to plagiarise and ‘borrow’ ideas from subordinates or colleagues. In some cases, faculty feel this has distorted personal and institutional priorities.

In short, faculty members are facing a challenging economic context even as they are coming under greater job pressure, sometimes within contexts characterised by weak oversight of their behaviour. Together, the impact of these factors creates the motive and the opportunity for corrupt practices to enter into the equation.

Codes of conduct

In preparing this report, Transparency International has drawn together highly regarded university researchers and practitioners as chapter authors.

Together, the authors offer a wide variety of well-sourced examples to illustrate the challenges posed by corruption – ranging from the dormitory manager in Romania who accepts money in return for providing campus accommodations to ineligible students, to faculty members in Ghana who were selling admission to otherwise unqualified students, to a university president in the United States who embezzled funds from a campus construction project.

Perhaps the most troubling examples arise out of malfeasance in the conduct of university-based research, particularly when it leads to other researchers unknowingly making use of false results, or practitioners making decisions on the basis of flawed findings.

While describing cases of corruption, the Global Corruption Report also offers strategies for addressing these problems. The report argues for the importance of clear codes of conduct for students, faculty and administrators, transparency in administrative procedures and decision-making, and mechanisms for calling problems to the attention of appropriate personnel.

However, the report does not assume easy answers. While few, if any, publicly condone corruption in higher education, implementing effective anti-corruption measures can be difficult. Although corruption poses serious costs to higher education, combatting corruption often carries personal costs to those who stand up to it.

Transparency’s Global Corruption Report: Education makes an important contribution to the field, however uncomfortable the message. Nonetheless, only when those involved in the operation of higher education systems and of individual colleges and universities understand the threat will they be able to launch an effective response.

* David Chapman is Birkmaier professor of educational leadership at the University of Minnesota and was an expert advisory panel member for the Transparency International report.