Role of universities in the fight against corruption

Last September, a declaration aimed at mainstreaming ethics and anti-corruption in higher education was endorsed by the 68 member universities of the Compostela Group of Universities and subsequently also by the World University Consortium and the World Academy of Art and Science, a global network of 700+ university professors.

The Poznan Declaration is a first important step for higher education in joining governments, businesses and civil society in the global fight against corruption. And it is high time to do so.

Since the rise of the anti-corruption agenda in the mid-1990s, a wide range of reports, conventions and legislation have emerged, aimed at both enforcing and promoting transparency, integrity and accountability – such as the OECD Anti-Bribery Convention, the United Nations Convention against Corruption, and most recently the European Union Anti-Corruption Report.

Despite the relative widespread implementation of anti-corruption reforms and institutional solutions, no more than 21 countries have enjoyed a significant decrease in corruption levels since 1996, while at the same time 27 countries have become worse off.

A new approach is needed

Recent World Health Organization, International Labour Organization and European Union studies have demonstrated the powerful effects on population health and well-being of a wide variety of social determinants.

For a successful approach to preventing corrupt and morally reprehensible behaviour, it is likely that, in addition to punitive and institutional measures, we also need to understand and challenge the determinants of corrupt, illegal or otherwise anti-social behaviour.

It is important to highlight that, at university level, curricula typically lack components that would contribute to a non-tolerance of such conduct.

There are good reasons for higher education to take on these challenges.

First, on a global level, corruption is considered one of the major obstacles for meaningful democracy, economic wealth and human well-being.

Second, apart from direct costs, both petty and grand corruption erodes social trust and contributes to reinforcing dysfunctional norms in a society. As social trust is needed in most undertakings of collective action, this can in turn undermine the ability of states to collect taxes.

Third, societies governed by corrupt systems and unethical norms provide a breeding ground for economic crisis. Whatever the underlying causes of economic and financial crisis, many governments react by introducing austerity measures.

The combination of crisis and austerity is likely to amplify unemployment, poverty and inequality, which in turn – directly or indirectly – may lead to increased morbidity, mortality and human suffering.

Adding to that, austerity measures often strike particularly hard against those unconnected with the causes of the crisis, which may further lead to an erosion of both trust and legitimacy in our democratic institutions.

Because of the negative feedback loop, the situation provides a delicate social trap from which escape is particularly hard. As Nobel Laureate Elinor Ostrom warned, it seems that by a one-sided focus on rationalism, society – including higher education – has produced individuals incapable of solving the problems of social traps.

Turning negative development around

Instead of continuing with an educational system that produces individuals geared towards narrow self-interests, higher education should adopt a more holistic approach, with an emphasis on ethics and anti-corruption in an attempt to promote social capital and subsequently health and development.

Trust should be viewed as a social capital springing from the understanding that it is closely connected with economic efficiency and growth. As a collective attribute, social capital can loosely be defined as networks and norms that facilitate cooperation and collective action.

To start promoting social capital we need to address “the causes behind the causes” – that is, the determinants of corrupt behaviour. It seems likely that such behaviour has its roots in the value systems of decision-makers at various levels within the public and private sector, many of whom have been educated at universities.

The following recommendations build on the assumption that trust is dependent on citizens’ perceptions of the provision of public goods in society, such as social services, healthcare and legal services, but also perceptions of private providers of goods and services.

If these are perceived as uncorrupt, non-discriminatory and reasonably effective, the recipients' generalised trust is likely to increase.

If a majority of the agents on the providing side of these interactions have received training in anti-corruption, ethical and impartial behaviour, it is possible that trust and social capital will be promoted, leading to a virtuous circle from which national health and development stand to benefit.

A ‘whole-of-university’ approach

From the numerous interactions from which we infer our trust in others, it is clear that reaching out only to students of law and public policy will fail to have the desired effects.

To name but a few: your banker is likely to be an economist; engineers are often central in public procurement; doctors, nurses and administrators alike are all points of contact in the health sector.

Thus, for universities to optimise their roles as drivers of change towards social capital, health and well-being, a ‘whole-of-university’ promotion is needed.

Recognising the university sector’s potential, as well as its responsibility to help shape the moral contours of society for the better, we ask institutions of higher education to:
  • • Endorse a cross-faculty approach to include components of ethics and anti-corruption in curricula.
  • • Teach teachers to encourage and facilitate the incorporation of ethics issues within their classes.
  • • Appreciate the opportunity to shape professional identities, which set the boundaries of future acceptable behaviour.
  • • 'Talk the talk' and 'walk the walk' – that is, in addition to educating on ethical behaviour it is crucial that universities – as agents providing a public good – themselves act accordingly, ensuring impartiality in teaching, student assessment and research and that matters regarding awards of degrees, employment and promotions are based on transparent and objective criteria.
Through this initiative, higher education can play its part in the global fight against corruption.

* Marcus Tannenberg is a project coordinator at The Quality of Government Institute at the University of Gothenburg. He authored the Poznan Declaration in cooperation with professors Bo Rothstein and Lennart Levi, and is now working on its implementation.