Experts call for action to combat academic corruption

Alarmed by the growing frequency of news reports about academic corruption, an international panel of experts is calling for "action on a broad front" to combat the problem, arguing that dishonest practices are "undermining the quality and credibility of higher education around the world".

And it's happening "at a time when [higher education's] importance as a driver of global development has never been higher", says a report from the 14-member panel. The group released its advisory statement on the issue in July as a step towards catalysing an international effort to fight the problem.

Participants hope the 20-page document, published in English, will be translated into local languages and disseminated widely "so that fighting corruption can be part of the agenda of meetings and conferences around the world", the statement says.

The advisory report grew out of a two-day meeting in Washington of a panel representing accrediting and quality assurance bodies, colleges and universities and higher education associations in Asia, Africa, Europe and North America.

The meeting was convened by the Washington-based Council for Higher Education Accreditation/International Quality Group, or CIQG, and the Paris-based International Institute for Educational Planning of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, or IIEP-UNESCO.

The advisory statement was prepared by Sir John Daniel, a distinguished former president of the Commonwealth of Learning and former UNESCO assistant director-general for education, working with IIEP-UNESCO and CIQG.

Academic corruption itself is not new. But concerns about its impact have gained momentum as the growth in cross-border mobility of students, faculty and researchers catapults what was once mostly a local scourge into a global phenomenon – and, the statement suggests, a worldwide threat.

One Chinese scholar last year described the problem in China as a "malignant tumour", the statement notes. It also cites recent cases from Australia, China, the Czech Republic, Egypt, France, Germany, India, Kenya, Nigeria, Russia, Slovakia, South Africa and the United States.

In all, the report focused on more than two dozen types of practices that affect the integrity of universities' academic operations, ranging from diploma mills and essay fraud to high-level bribery in exchange for an institution's degree-granting privileges and media suppression of stories that are unfavourable to governments and politicians.

It also developed a matrix offering potential ways in which stakeholders, including quality assurance bodies, government officials, higher education leaders, the press and students, can combat corruption.

Many of the suggestions aim to expand on tried-and-true strategies, such as codes of conduct, transparency in hiring and raising public awareness about topics such as conflict of interest and plagiarism.

Others reflect the competitive realities facing higher education in a global age. The panel suggests as one measure a rankings metric that would assess the academic integrity of institutions.

It also urged closer monitoring of the recruitment staff, including commercial agents, by national governments, quality assurance agencies and universities. And it called for the need for effective cyber-security of student record systems as data moves from one country to another.

Of particular concern, the statement notes, are the implications for millions of students who pursue a degree outside their native country. They "need to know in advance the behaviours that their institution considers to be dishonest", the statement says, adding that "many students have blighted their careers by being sanctioned for practices that were habits back home".

Similarly, "if students encounter corrupt practices at college they are more likely to think of them as normal behaviour in life," said Sir John Daniel, co-chair of the panel, in a statement accompanying the advisory's release.

But that's not all, he added. "The well-being of society depends on degrees and diplomas being truthful attestations to the knowledge and skills that graduates have acquired,” he said.