The need for action in an era of academic fraud

Academic misconduct manifests in multiple forms that include plagiarism, nepotism, corrupt recruitment and admission, cheating in exams, misrepresentation and falsifying of records, biased grading, bribery, conspiracy and collusion, among others.

Over the years, these malpractices have proliferated to the extent that they arguably threaten the foundation of the academic citadel and society at large. The perils of unleashing a dubious graduate in the form of a medical doctor, pilot, engineer or accountant are obvious.

Plagiarism is one of the most common forms of academic misconduct and has become more sophisticated over the years with the development of technology that allows for the storage of information on devices such as calculators, smart-watches and micro-video cameras concealed in glasses.

In Africa the problem of misconduct frequently involves the fraudulent issuing of credentials, and while some countries have taken steps to address it, the challenges are still considerable.


In a dramatic move, the Tanzanian government under incumbent President John Magufuli last year laid off some 10,000 workers who were found to hold fake credentials. However, this did not go far enough as those appointed by the president were exempted from scrutiny. Similar action, though cursory, was taken in Ethiopia a while back, and recent candid revelations by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed on the extent of plagiarism are astounding.

In Kenya, the amended Elections Act made it mandatory for seekers of parliamentary seats to have a minimum of a university degree, replacing the earlier requirement of a post-Form Four certificate. Some politicians thereafter reportedly managed to obtain degrees in three months.

According to the Cameroon Tribune, widespread corruption in the country’s universities includes bribery by students to obtain good results, false diplomas, nepotism, counterfeiting of results, and promotions in return for sex. The National Anti-Corruption Commission late last year launched an awareness campaign to combat this scourge.

In Zimbabwe, the case of Grace Mugabe, former first lady, has been highlighted as a reprehensible example of academic dishonesty. She was allegedly granted a PhD in three months by the country’s flagship university, the University of Zimbabwe, where the former president served as chancellor. Subsequent to former president Robert Mugabe’s departure, the university community took up the case, prompting the suspension of the vice-chancellor allegedly responsible.

Academic fraud is not the sole preserve of students. Academics, staff and management are reported to have been involved in nefarious acts ranging from manipulating and doctoring grades, results and reviews to trading grades for sexual favours, popularly known as ‘sexually transmitted grades’. Ethnicity, gender and religious bias have been also identified as factors that undermine academic integrity in a number of countries.

In cases where a robust media is lacking in Africa, fraudsters and cheaters act with impunity. In a number of countries, where those in power unashamedly benefit from as well as bankroll such offences, they potentially corrupt the entire system.

Audacity of cheaters

What is disturbing is the audacity of perpetrators – even when called out. Altbach (2015) has noted the case of India where cheating is so well established in some parts of the country that students have asserted their ‘right’ to cheat. This year, Delhi University was reportedly forced to install phone jammers in exam halls to prevent cheating.

Last year, a student at Kenya’s Mount Kenya University who was reportedly caught cheating and subsequently chewed and swallowed the material to avoid criminal seizure fought her suspension, though unsuccessfully, through the courts. This can be construed as increasing deterioration of the moral and ethical capital surrounding academic integrity.

According to Altbach (2015), a report by the Exams Ethics Project, a non-governmental organisation working in Nigeria, noted that academic fraud and corruption is “big business” in that country, following the revoking of over 7,000 degrees by the University of Port Harcourt in southern Nigeria. The head of the university apparently charged the students with either cheating on examinations or falsifying their academic records, in cases going back to 1966.

Academic corruption – in the form of fake degrees, degree mills, conferences – has now become an international business that is openly advertised on the internet, rendering monitoring and policing increasingly onerous. What makes it even more challenging for developing countries and their institutions is the lack of instruments, facilities, policies, and systems to effectively combat it.

Increasingly, ignorance and lack of awareness of the principles and guidelines relating to the culture of academic integrity have been raised as defences for plagiarism, purportedly due to incompatible cultural and ideological orientations. Working to change deeper cultural layers such as worldviews, beliefs and cultural identity are recommended in such cases.


An organised and multifaceted national and continental campaign needs to be mounted to root out corruption. Relevant ministries, academic institutions, law enforcement agencies and quality assurance bodies need to collectively intensify their efforts not only to punish criminals but also to proactively sensitise academics, students and society at large on matters and the consequences of academic fraud.

The recent visit to the University of Botswana by members of Nigeria’s Presidential Advisory Committee Against Corruption to learn about combatting corruption is one such trans-national effort.

For their part, academic institutions need to take matters of academic fraud, such as plagiarism, which is the most common academic offence, more seriously. Regardless of its resources, no academic institution should allow its students, especially postgraduates, to graduate without subjecting their work to plagiarism detection software. Indeed, while they suffer certain limitations, a number of such tools are available free of charge as well as for sale. If nothing else, they would serve as a deterrent.

The need to create awareness and sensitisation must be taken seriously in light of increasingly cunning and audacious internal and external fraudsters that target academia. Fraudulent journals, accreditation agencies and conferences have become increasingly difficult to track, authenticate and pursue. This challenge is not limited to emerging academics but also confronts their seasoned colleagues.

Institutions also need to review their academic policies and guidelines which largely focus on exigencies and convenience rather than quality control and excellence. For example, doing away with exit (public) defences for PhDs (following dissertation review) inspires lenience towards, if not directly encourages, fraud.


It is difficult to police every act of academic fraud in a society where tolerance of moral decadence has taken root. In countries where powerful entities have ‘benefitted’ from academic corruption to elevate their stature and thus their social, economic and political capital, it has been hard to stem. Sinister forces have become godfathers of fraud and corruption and the authorities have shown indifference, reluctance, timidity and fear in prosecuting such cases.

Academic malpractices are typically wilful acts of corruption perpetrated by a small minority across sections of society, including students, parents and teachers, members of examination boards, officials and politicians. This unfortunate but fast expanding misconduct which devours the integrity of the academic world with huge consequences for society at large must be confronted with sustained effort and persistent determination.

In countries where mediocrity and nepotism have reached an industrial scale, the moral fabric and academic sanctity of institutions have been massively damaged and may take many decades to re-establish.

As Altbach (2004) argues, the reality of corruption in higher education must be recognised as a central problem to be analysed, understood and rooted out. The first step is recognising its nature and scope.

Damtew Teferra is professor of higher education and leader of Higher Education Training and Development at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban, South Africa. He is the founding director of the International Network for Higher Education in Africa and the founding editor in chief of the Journal of African Higher Education (former) and the International Journal of African Higher Education.