Collective effort needed to combat academic corruption

A panel presentation on how the global academic community can combat academic corruption in higher education provoked a lively discussion highlighting the widespread and wide-ranging scope of the problem, the diversity of responses and a growing sense that the issue belongs high on the agenda for policy-makers in international education.

The conversation took place in a breakout session during the annual meeting of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation or CHEA in Washington.

CHEA last year began tackling the ubiquitous and unwieldy problem of corruption, issuing an advisory statement outlining the pressing need for a collective effort to eliminate academic corruption and launching a webinar series to address potential solutions.

In a review of policies around the world, “very few of the bodies we looked at really put much of a focus on corruption as part of their reviews of quality assurance in their nations or jurisdiction”, said session moderator Sir John Daniel, an international higher education consultant who helms the CHEA initiative.

CHEA is now considering next steps, including the possibility of producing an online course on corruption, based on its advisory statement. Daniel noted that some MOOC – massive open online course – providers offer courses to students on academic integrity but the CHEA course would be directed primarily at higher education faculty and administrators.

The advisory statement, developed by CHEA and the International Institute for Educational Planning of UNESCO, defines corruption as "any prescribed action in connection with, for example, admissions, examinations or degree awarding that attempts to gain unfair advantage, including cheating, plagiarism, falsification of research, degree mills and accreditation mills".

Corruption, hardly a new concept, is most likely to sprout when the stakes are high. Noting the growing pressure on ambitious young academics to publish, a recent New York Times column offered a glimpse into the world of fake academic conferences and journals.

The Cambodian government last year sent police to high school exam test sites around the country as part of a crackdown on bribery, stand-in test takers and related forms of cheating.

When New Zealand immigration authorities threatened nearly 150 Indian students with deportation last year after detecting fraudulent visa applications, the students organised a protest, saying education agents they worked with provided false financial information without their knowledge or consent.

Anti-corruption initiatives

In some regions, higher education institutions or organisations are leading anti-corruption initiatives, a few of which were highlighted at the CHEA session.

The non-profit Global University Network for Innovation in Africa – GUNi-Africa – for example has launched a series of workshops to raise public awareness of the problem of academic corruption and its significance. At the same time it is developing an Academic Integrity Index that would be tied to rankings.

The GUNi-Africa campaign is based on a pilot study in Nigeria, which found that a combination of public awareness and stiff sanctions was effective.

“Prevention is better than cure, we think,” said GUNi-Africa President Peter Okebukola, pro-chancellor of Crawford University in Nigeria. But "when you know the rules, and you transgress them, you must have sanctions".

The biggest challenge, Okebukola said, is that corruption is so widespread that higher education officials questioned why higher education was being singled out.

A European Union-funded project on plagiarism identified a number of challenges, including the lack of a common or consistent approach for dealing with the problem.

A survey last year of 800 people in six countries found that, in addition to practices such as cheating on exams and professors taking bribes, a contributing factor was lax enforcement by authorities.

"Although lots of these penalties were on the books, very few of them appeared to be actually imposed," said Irene Glendinning, a Coventry University professor and principal investigator for the EU project, known as the Impact of Policies for Plagiarism in Higher Education Across Europe.

On the flip side, she said, the study also revealed that many stakeholders are aware of problems but feel powerless to act.

In Australia, where the media reported that education agents were falsifying academic records for international applicants, universities are looking into developing a secure database that would allow admissions officials to check the validity of academic credentials.

There is a "huge demand and interest from providers for examples of good practices", said Anthony McClaran, CEO of Australia's Tertiary Education and Quality Standards Agency.

Notably, few representatives of United States universities or organisations attended the (optional) session on corruption, leading conference organisers to ponder whether its US membership is being complacent about the problem, or, perhaps think it doesn't apply to them. The United States needs "to be a part of this", said CHEA President Judith Eaton.

Coincidentally, in a separate conference session, US Senator Elizabeth Warren vowed to push for legislation that would penalise what she called "bad actors" who engage in academic fraud and corruption.

But she directed her concerns at the for-profit higher education sector and spoke primarily of how policies enrich the colleges while plunging students into debt and leaving them with a worthless degree.

Daniel wondered whether the term ‘corruption’ was off-putting to the public and private non-profit US sector, which tends to prefer softer descriptions. But he said it's the right choice of words.

"Some are shocked by our use of the word ‘corruption’ to cover cheating, plagiarism and behaviour for which they would prefer euphemisms like misconduct," Daniel said. About that CHEA remains "unapologetic", he stressed. "Dishonesty is dishonesty."