Roadmap for corruption-free higher education proposed

Corruption is spreading across most of the public Ukrainian universities, particularly education and administrative corruptions, due to low academic salaries, low motivation of students to prepare for exams, lack of law enforcement and punishment mechanisms and a corruption-prone culture, according to a new report.

"Corruption is a widespread phenomenon at Ukrainian higher education institutions, with more than a quarter of students reporting participation in corrupt activities," says the report from the United Nations University – Maastricht Economic and Social Research Institute on Innovation and Technology (UNU-MERIT) in the Netherlands.

It has proposed a wide range of changes, from standardisation of examinations in the written form to structural changes in the higher education system.

The report, entitled Combatting Corruption in Higher Education in Ukraine, used data from national authorities and civil society to explore corruption in Ukrainian public universities in the past four years (2013-17).

Ukraine has more than 287 operating universities for the population of around 45 million people, with more than 70% of Ukrainians aged 18 or older having attended or being currently enrolled in higher education institutions, making it the fifth country worldwide in terms of the number of citizens with higher education diplomas per capita, according to the report.

The data from the website – established by the independent Ukrainian analytical centres CEDOS and the National Endowment for Democracy – provided information on corruption by university, year of occurrence, type of corruption, sum of money involved, relevant provision of the Criminal Code and a qualitative summary of the case at hand.

The data showed prevalent schemes of corruption, including 44 cases with a broad geographical representation of the universities.

For example, National Aviation University had the highest reported sum of €987,289 (US$1.2 million) in assets taken out illegally from the government in the form of land, dormitories and other buildings, as well as the rights for some unfinished building objects.

Also, professors from Mykolaiv National University and from Zaporizhzhya National Technical University have collected €8.56 per student for passing exams.

"The reported cases came both from the top Ukrainian universities and those at the bottom of the list, suggesting that corruption is likely to be spread across most higher education institutions, irrespective of their quality," the report says.

The second set of data obtained from national authorities indicated that, on average, 171.25 cases of corruption in education were discovered per year. Overall, 83% of cases have resulted in conviction. However, a follow-up descriptive analysis indicated that only 1% of convicted cases resulted in imprisonment and most cases resulted in fines and releases on probation.

This indicated that "the judicial system responded weakly to the instances of corruption", the report explained.

Using the data from the website, the report identified three of the most prevalent corruption schemes, including corruption at university admissions for undergraduate and postgraduate programmes, corruption in grade attainment throughout university education and administrative corruption.

Faculty members' motivations to engage in corrupt activities include low salaries and an eagerness to get easy money, facilitated by the lack of law enforcement and punishment mechanisms, and a corruption-prone culture, the report pointed out.

Recommended response

The study has put forward several recommendations in order to mitigate corruption in Ukrainian higher education institutions.

These recommendations include collecting more data and conducting further research, increasing transparency in the Ukrainian higher education institutions, conducting information campaigns and encouraging participation of civil society as well as increasing oversight of higher education institutions.

Besides setting up a better reward and punishment mechanism for higher education institution employees, the study recommended the standardising of exams in the written form and encouraging academic freedom.

"The combination of more academic freedom for both students and faculty can create more interest in studying, teaching and research and decrease the current prevailing opinion that a university diploma is just a piece of paper which opens doors on the job market," the report says.

The report also called for structural changes in higher education and judicial systems, as well as increasing salaries as an essential component for mitigating faculty-driven corruption.

"As in any case of prevalent corruption, there is no easy solution," the report concludes. "Combatting the ‘cancer of society’ requires a balance between reward and punishment mechanisms, as well as control versus academic freedom and decentralisation. Such reforms require unity and desire for change from all stakeholders."

Asked about the potential impact of the implementation of the study recommendations on university corruption in Ukraine, Elena Denisova-Schmidt, a lecturer in Russian culture and society at the University of St Gallen, Switzerland, and research fellow at the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College, United States, told University World News: "I think it is important to work not only to combat the symptoms, but also on the reasons behind the lack of academic integrity, including the massification of higher education.

"Measures should not attempt to address corruption in general, but rather focus on specific practices, such as remedies against cheating or plagiarism among students," said Denisova-Schmidt, who is the lead author for a 2017 article entitled “Ukraine: Endemic Higher Education Corruption”.

"But like any other educational campaigns, anti-corruption campaigns might have no impact, or even the opposite effect: they might promote the very behaviour that they set out to prevent and-or condemn," Denisova-Schmidt warned.

Yaroslav Prytula, dean of the faculty of applied sciences at Ukrainian Catholic University, told University World News: "International exposure and more competition being introduced for government or donors’ funds can be a push factor toward corruption-free education."