Corruption is eroding higher education’s benefits

University education in Africa is regarded as key to a better future, and has the potential to provide the tools that people need to improve livelihoods and live with dignity. But according to Transparency International, systemic corruption is eroding benefits that could be accrued from higher education.

In Global Corruption Report: Education, published on 1 October, Transparency International – an NGO that monitors and publicises corporate and political corruption – highlights how corruption in education is widespread across Africa. From Morocco to South Africa and from Kenya to Nigeria, corruption afflicts higher education.

“It cuts across societies, states and cultures and diverts funding from state budgets that should be dedicated to bringing hope to many young people,” said Navanethem Pillay, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Corruption in academia

The Transparency International report highlights illicit payments for admission of students to degree programmes, tribalism and nepotism in recruitment to tenured positions, and bribery in on-campus accommodation and grading.

“Education corruption in higher education is also embedded in political and corporate undue influence in research, plagiarism and ghost authorship of academic papers,” said Transparency International chair Huguette Labelle.

Commenting on the situation in Nigeria, Dr Shola Omotola, a senior lecturer at Redeemer’s University, highlighted that whereas rules for academic promotion are clear, there is a divide between the rules and practices of advancement in academia.

“Academics who are loyal to the vice-chancellor are likely to be promoted regardless of merit,” said Omotola, who has taught in several public and private universities in Nigeria.

In his study on corruption in the academic career, Omotola revealed how faculty members often pay a journal to publish articles without peer review. “I have witnessed instances when letters of acceptance were issued for imaginary papers that were never written, in order to ensure the promotion of favoured academics.”

A similar situation is prevalent in East African universities, where lecturers pay emerging online journals to publish papers that have not been peer reviewed. Quite often, names of academics who did not do any work are added, provided that they contribute towards payment.

There are also cases where academics contract pseudo researchers to write papers and have them published on their behalf. In extreme cases, candidates for promotion to senior positions present, as their own, plagiarised research from reputable journals.

“Although software that can detect various forms of plagiarism is available, few board members of interview committees in universities apply the technology,” said Omotola.

Fake degrees and institutions

The wave of corruption and fraud in academia in Africa has grown as a result of diploma mills and bogus universities that are not certified by accreditation bodies.

According to the Transparency International report, degree mills have been taking advantage of growing demand for higher education in Sub-Saharan Africa as well as global recognition of a degree as a benchmark for employment, future training and good career prospects.

Large numbers of people get hooked into buying fake credentials from degree mills precisely because they will have to do little or no work to obtain a qualification. Many others are encouraged to do limited coursework to get their degrees.

Such had been the case in Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda, where politicians, religious leaders and other elites without university education have been purchasing degrees from diploma mills to enhance their social status, according to the report.

In Niger, for instance, there is a willing market for fraudulent degrees as a result of lack of quality and accountability in the higher education system.

“The easiest source of income for some public officials is to manufacture and sell fake diplomas,” said Hassane Amadou Diallo, a programme officer at the Transparency International office in Niger’s capital Niamey.

The problem of fake degree certificates is not restricted to Niger but has become a major issue in most countries in Sub-Saharan Africa. Cases of prominent people holding bogus degrees have recently been reported in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda.

The number of bogus universities has also been increasing.

According to Professor Julius Amioba Okojie, executive secretary of Nigeria’s National Universities Commission, there are 58 identified illegal degree mills operating in the country.

“Those degree mills have not been licensed by the government and we would like to warn parents and prospective undergraduates not to have anything to do with them,” said Okojie in a statement.

Although there have been attempts to close down unregistered or unaccredited universities in most African countries, their numbers have been creeping up in Cameroon, Kenya, Liberia, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Tanzania and Uganda, among other countries.

And then there is the challenge of inadequate private institutions. For instance in April this year, Uganda’s National Council for Higher Education classified as useless 66 PhD degrees awarded by a local private university.

“We found those dissertations useless because of serious academic and professional deficiencies,” said Professor John Opuda Asibo, executive director of the council. Asibo told University World News that some supervisors did not have PhDs while others had degrees from unrecognised universities.

Admission and grades corruption

In Africa the interface between higher education and corruption is implicitly centred on lack of access to universities. According to UNESCO, although enrolment in higher education has been growing faster in Sub-Saharan Africa than in any other region of the world, still only around 7% of the age cohort was enrolled in 2010.

Subsequently, paying a bribe – especially in order to gain admission to a degree programme of choice – has been on the increase in most universities in the region.

In Ghana, university officials have been sacked for selling admission to students who would not otherwise qualify. Students have also paid bribes to obtain on-campus accommodation and for pass marks. Sex for marks has also been on the rise.

As the report stresses, corruption in education in all its different shades is a violation of human rights and should be resisted at all costs.