Tackling corruption in African higher education

Sub-Saharan Africa is consistently ranked by Transparency International as the most corrupt region in the world – with corruption leading to abuse of political power and failure in the delivery of basic services such as health care, sanitation and public education.

Its Global Corruption Report: Education, released on 1 October, argues that corruption has not just raised the cost of higher education but has also hindered socio-economic progress in many African countries by diminishing the quality of university education.

“Corruption in higher education prevents those who would excel on merit from contributing to their nation’s growth and development,” says the report.

It suggests that corruption in higher education could be reduced by shifting the focus to integrity matters and enforcing laws against all forms of corruption.

Thwarting corruption in Nigeria and Liberia

For instance in Nigeria, where 54% of people perceive the education system to be highly corrupt, the Socio-economic Rights and Accountability project has been undertaking public interest litigation for the right to education.

In Liberia, Tell the Truth, a pilot project in several universities, is trying to overcome the culture of silence on issues related to bribery, patronage, abuse of resources, cutting class by lecturers and sex-for-grades.

Ideally, all stakeholders on campus – students, professors and administration staff – can text a free short code through mobile phones and then be called back by an operator who gathers details of the problem.

Subsequently, the information is discussed periodically by university administration and student representatives, and both sides agree on the way forward. On certain issues, whistleblowers have their identities protected to avoid retaliation.

“The project is slowly enhancing deterrence, reporting, discussion and action,” said Blair Glenmore, executive director of Accountability Lab, an independent pressure group that supports new answers to problems of accountability in developing countries.

Governance must be improved

Amid efforts to reduce corruption in higher education in Africa, Transparency International researchers are urging improvements in governance and leadership of public universities.

According to Dr Jamil Salmi, a former coordinator of the World Bank’s tertiary education programme and current higher education consultant, governments must establish a regulatory framework for tertiary education systems, with adequate provisions to punish corrupt behaviour at all levels.

Salmi suggests that university senates, independent financial review boards and national university accreditation boards should provide leadership in fighting corruption.

“Integrity in the delivery of education services should be measured by external quality assurance reviews. There should also be honesty in use of financial resources measured by external audits,” said Salmi, one of the researchers for the Global Corruption Report.

In order to operate in a more transparent manner, African universities are encouraged to ensure than funds generated through corruption are not donated or invested in higher education. The report mentions cases in Nigeria, Libya and Equatorial Guinea, where money embezzled from public institutions had been channelled to universities.

“For Africa, the key to combat corruption is by making it harder for people to spend their ill-gotten gains and to create anti-money laundering safeguards,” said Arvind Ganesan, director of the business and human rights division at Human Rights Watch.

Taking into account that corruption is endemic in most universities in Sub-Saharan Africa, Transparency International urges a crackdown on academic fraud that ranges from soft marking, copying from other students and cheating during examinations to impersonation.

Universities are also urged to monitor and punish cases of falsifying academic records, paying for grades with gifts, money and sexual favours, terrorising examiners and assaulting invigilators.

“Combined with on-campus violence, such practices have contributed to widespread illiteracy and poor ranking of Nigerian universities, non-accreditation of many programmes and revocation of degrees,” said Anthony Nwaopara, a lecturer at Ambrose Alli University in Epkoma, in a study of academic integrity in Nigerian universities.

Taken together, those outcomes are deemed to undermine educational opportunities for students as well as to produce graduates who are less equipped to thrive in future careers.

As Muriel Poisson, a programme specialist at the UNESCO-affiliated International Institute for Educational Planning, pointed out, on average Africa is losing about 25% of its gross domestic product to corruption.

“Nonetheless, corruption can be reduced if the standards and procedures associated with financial, human and material resource management are made transparent and understood by all groups,” said Poisson.

Even then, according to the Global Corruption Report, the challenge for Africa is that there is no single course of action that will reduce fraud and corruption in higher education.

“What is required as elsewhere in the world is development of transparent regulatory systems and standards, building management capacity systems as well as public ownership of administrative and financial resources,” said Poisson.