Quality assurance cannot solve corruption on its own

Academic fraud such as bribery, bogus universities and falsified research findings is hardly a new phenomenon but it seems to be escalating worldwide, prompting quality assurance professionals meeting last week in Washington, DC to grapple with how, if at all, they can help combat the problem.

No consensus was reached, but a prevailing view emerged that the potential consequences, if left unchecked, are dire. Transparency International's 2013 Global Corruption Report: Education found that, in some instances, corruption runs so deep in higher education systems that it "threatens the reputation of research products and graduates, regardless of their guilt and innocence”. And no country or institution is immune from it.

"What keeps surprising me is that every time you pick up a newspaper, you see [another example]. It's happening everywhere," says Goolam Mohamedbhai, former president of the International Association of Universities. "If higher education institutions are going to produce the leaders of tomorrow, then it is worrying for society."

Speaking at the annual meeting of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation's International Quality Group, or CHEA/CIQG, Mohamedbhai summarised a handful of recent examples that offer a glimpse of the breadth and depth of the problem.

A report published last year in International Higher Education described widespread problems in China as a "malignant tumour", citing examples of rampant plagiarism, favouritism in hiring and promotions, and a doctoral student who completed his thesis in a week.

A 2014 paper in the International Education Studies said a dean at Moscow State University in Russia accepted a bribe in exchange for admission to a doctoral programme, and referenced a Moscow police report stating that 30-40 professors each year are caught accepting bribes for awarding good grades.

And a simple Google search using the phrase "Vyapam scam" reveals what Mohamedbhai called a "shocking scandal" in India, where about 2,500 impersonators sat for standardised admissions exams for slots in top medical colleges. More than 2,000 people have been arrested in the case, which surfaced last year, and dozens of those involved have died, under suspicion of murder or suicide.

A confluence of factors makes higher education particularly ripe for corruption, panelists said. A university degree is now a prerequisite for access to good jobs, positions of power and other exclusive benefits, and the most prestigious higher education institutions have neither the space nor desire to accommodate everybody who wants to enrol.

Just as low-paid faculty might be tempted to accept money in exchange for good grades, cash-strapped public universities might succumb to similar opportunities at the institution level. Pressure to move up in international rankings or publish in top journals offers incentives to fudge numbers or falsify research.

Preventive role

Until recently “surprising little attention" has been given to the role that quality assurance agencies might play in preventing academic corruption, said Michaela Martin, a programme director with UNESCO's International Institute for Educational Planning.

In a policy brief for CIQG, Martin said the role of accreditation bodies is limited but they can "clearly have a strong signalling effect for higher education institutions". In terms of governance, for example, quality assurance officials can insist that internal and external stakeholders, including students, participate in decision-making.

They also can "insist on the existence of integrity structures, policies and practices" and "spread existing good practices across the higher education sector".

That is the approach taken in Croatia, where a 2008 police raid targeting faculty members and administrators in the economics and transportation departments of the University of Zagreb led to a number of convictions.

Police said professors were taking as much as US$3,000 from students for passing grades and more than US$10,000 for enrolling students. Five professors received sentences, from 14 to 30 months in prison, and all students accused in the case received suspended sentences.

The response from a quality assurance perspective has been "transparency, transparency, transparency", Jasmina Havranek, director of the Croatian Agency for Science and Higher Education, or ASHE, told conference participants. Universities at the time balked at disclosing data on topics such as applications and enrolments, she said, "but now they see that it is very useful".

To the extent that crimes are committed, Mohamedbhai and others at the session encouraged the education community to leverage local laws. The Croatian arrests were made after a year-long police investigation, and the Vyapam case was referred to India's Central Bureau of Investigation. Havranek noted that quality assurance agencies can perhaps be most effective in raising awareness to prevent corruption.

Working with UNESCO – the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization – CHEA/CIQG plans this spring to explore how quality assurance groups can make a difference.

"We know corruption undermines quality, undermines institutions and undermines students," says CHEA President Judith Eaton. "It is an issue to which quality assurance and accreditation can make a significant contribution."