An international coalition to fight corruption

The existence of corruption in higher education has been known for decades and published papers covering the topic in specific countries or regions have been appearing since the year 2000. What perhaps was not realised until recently was its magnitude and extent and the fact that it is constantly growing. Indeed, a paper on corruption in higher education in China, published in 2015, appropriately referred to it as a malignant tumour.

Two organisations that have been concerned about corruption in higher education are the International Institute for Educational Planning or IIEP-UNESCO, based in Paris, and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation or CHEA, located in Washington DC.

IIEP has been taking a leading role in areas such as ethics and corruption, transparency and accountability and integrity planning in education for more than a decade now. It has provided training on how to design and implement diagnostic tools aimed at assessing corrupt practices and on how to design and implement strategies to improve transparency and accountability in education.

It has also created a web-based platform, ETICO, which compiles resources on the issue of ethics and corruption in education, including higher education.

In March 2015, IIEP convened a Policy Forum in Paris on ‘Planning Higher Education Integrity’, which brought together some 60 higher education experts and stakeholders from around the world to discuss innovative initiatives aimed at reducing fraud and corruption in higher education institutions.

The forum confirmed that corruption in higher education is indeed a worldwide phenomenon and, as a way forward, the participants called for the creation of an international coalition on higher education integrity.

CHEA deals mainly with accreditation bodies in the United States. As degree and accreditation mills are a major concern for US higher education, CHEA has a special section covering these on its website, which includes a database of accredited degree-awarding higher education institutions and programmes; and in 2009, it published, jointly with UNESCO, an Advisory Statement on how to discourage degree mills in higher education.

In 2012, CHEA extended its coverage and set up a CHEA International Quality Group or CIQG, which serves as a forum for higher education institutions, accrediting and quality assurance organisations and other stakeholders worldwide to address issues of quality in higher education.

How can quality assurance address corruption?

In July 2015, CIQG issued a two-page Policy Brief, authored by two senior staff of IIEP, on how quality assurance, or QA, can help in preventing corruption in higher education.

At the CIQG Annual Meeting held in January 2016 in Washington DC, which dealt with the multiple demands and challenges encountered in the implementation of QA and accreditation, there was a special session on QA and academic corruption, a session that aroused significant interest among the 250 participants.

Given their common concern and their past collaboration, it was only natural for CHEA/CIQG and IIEP to join forces to address academic corruption. In March 2016, they therefore jointly hosted a two-day expert meeting in Washington DC on the topic ‘Quality Assurance, Accreditation and Academic Corruption’. The meeting brought together a small group of representatives from accreditation and QA bodies as well as higher education institutions and associations in Asia, Africa, Europe and North America.

Some of the key questions addressed by the group were:
  • • Are the existing criteria used by QA agencies to assess higher education institutions and their programmes sufficient to address academic corruption? If not, how can they be reinforced?

  • • What other preventive tools and measures can be used to enhance academic integrity and which can be used as part of the QA assessment? And how can they be enforced?

  • • How can QA agencies best work together with higher education institutions as well as with other stakeholders – for example, government, oversight authorities, civil society, student associations and employers – to prevent academic corruption?
Corruption in higher education covers a vast area that the group could not possibly cover in its entirety. The group agreed to explore which specific academic corruption issues it would be most useful to address. This includes admission of students, examinations, awarding of degrees and research.

As a major outcome of the meeting, an advisory statement on academic corruption will be prepared. The statement will include, as appendices, a background to the various meetings and activities that have led to the preparation of the statement; definitions of ‘fraud’ and ‘academic corruption’ and related terms; the effective practices to be undertaken or tools to be created by the various actors and stakeholders in fighting academic corruption in higher education; and a selected list of useful references.

The plan is to make the statement available to the public by the end of June 2016 in both English and French, with a possibility of having it subsequently translated in Chinese.

A second possible outcome could be the creation by CHEA and IIEP of an online platform on corruption in higher education, linked to IIEP’s ETICO. However, both CHEA and IIEP would need to consider the cost and technology implications of creating such a platform, and maintaining it, and it might take some time for CHEA and IIEP to move in that direction.

The group finally agreed that the Washington DC meeting in March 2016, and its outcomes, should be considered as the beginning of a larger venture in addressing the major and serious issue of corruption in higher education.

Professor Goolam Mohamedbhai is the former secretary-general of the Association of African Universities, the former president of the International Association of Universities and the former vice-chancellor of the University of Mauritius.