Leading the fight against academic corruption

The Advisory Statement for Effective International Practice: Combatting corruption and enhancing integrity – recently published by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation's International Quality Group or CHEA-CIQG, and the International Institute for Educational Planning or IIEP-UNESCO – was, in many ways, a significant gamble.

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On the one hand, there is considerable evidence of the need for such a statement, with fraudulent credentials, degree mills, accreditation mills, plagiarism, as well as payment for admission, degrees and grades an unfortunate part of the higher education space, both nationally and internationally.

On the other hand, identifying ‘corruption’ in an international context is fraught with uncertainty and unknowns. Moreover, it is not a pleasant topic. What one country or region calls ‘corruption’ is, in another country or region, acceptable practice.

This is an area where variation in cultural or social norms is particularly difficult to reconcile. And, in today’s world in which higher education has never been more important and needed, aren’t there other issues, for instance, access and equity for students, that are more in need of our immediate attention?

However, to those of us who moved forward – CHEA-CIQG, IIEP-UNESCO, the outstanding international Expert Group assembled to explore the vital issue of academic corruption earlier this year – there was a strong conviction that, ultimately, the gains that could be made by preventing and even eliminating corruption far outweighed the risks.

Integrity is a bedrock commitment to the academic community. Prevention of corruption is essential. And, there was a sense that sorting out and strengthening the role of quality assurance and urging greater attention from the quality assurance community were central to future effectiveness in combatting corruption. This may be one of the major gains of our efforts.

Internationalisation community

We also knew that the international space to act was there. A de facto international community of higher education and quality assurance has existed for many years and has never been more important. This community has long focused on internationalisation when it comes to such vital issues as student mobility across borders, faculty exchange among institutions around the world and international research projects.

Organisations such as UNESCO, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and the World Bank have long played lead roles in building this community, as have quality assurance bodies such as the International Network for Quality Assurance Agencies in Higher Education and, more recently, CHEA-CIQG.

Central to all of these efforts is a sense of urgency around international convergence of judgment about quality and quality assurance. Our group not only affirmed that academic corruption needs to be part of the agenda of vital issues for the international community, but also that those of us in quality assurance are especially well-positioned to lead progress in this area.

At a time when higher education is available to more and more people, when diversification of higher education providers is rapidly becoming the norm, when quality higher education is central to building a good life and robust societies, fighting academic corruption, a corrosive force that can undermine so many of these efforts, is essential.

Best practice

It was also clear that efforts to showcase and heighten the visibility of current efforts to fight academic corruption were both needed and desirable. A number of such undertakings are underway nationally, regionally and internationally.

These include websites that offer practices to fight corruption and encourage integrity in higher education and inventories of reliable higher education and quality assurance providers or ‘white lists’. Ongoing media coverage of academic corruption such as degree mills and sale of credentials raises awareness of corruption and the need for robust efforts at prevention.

Finally, as the Advisory Statement for Effective International Practice indicates, urging greater public attention to the role of quality assurance in addressing academic corruption is only part of the challenge. Partnerships are essential. Success requires many key actors working together – government, employers, media, faculty and students.

We hope that the Statement encourages and even launches discussion of how these actors, working with quality assurance, can identify and vigorously take on the responsibilities that are part of responding to the urgency of the corruption issue.

What’s next? Even in the short time since its release, the Statement is capturing the attention of the international community, with sharing of the document on websites and social media and with the Statement used to launch additional media commentary and conversations at conferences and meetings.

As these efforts proceed, CHEA-CIQG will focus on action steps that not only quality assurance can take, but also the various key actors, looking especially toward areas where we can work together.

Was the gamble worth it? Yes. Do we have a lot to do? Yes. Can quality assurance play a bigger role? Yes. Our hope is that the Statement is part of moving forward, an encouragement, a prod and, as the Statement itself says, a call to action.

Judith Eaton is president of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation/International Quality Group or CHEA-CIQG in Washington DC, USA.