New recommendation aims to advance fraud-free education

Quality education is free of fraud and corruption. While this affirmation seems self-evident, putting it into practice is much more difficult. Contemporary societies invest a great deal of effort in the development of education systems driven by principles of ethics, transparency and integrity.

Education fraud represents a threat, not only to the education community but to the entire society. It directly impacts on the right to quality education and the principle of equity if a person with a fraudulent qualification is enrolled in a higher education course or participates in a public competition instead of somebody else with an authentic one.

It poses a direct risk to the health and well-being of citizens if a medical doctor practises the profession using a fake qualification in medicine; the same would apply for an engineer, an architect, a teacher, and for any individual practising a regulated profession (that is regulated to protect the basic rights of citizens).

And organisations that sell fraudulent qualifications or claim to be legitimate and accredited institutions – when they are not – not only undermine the trust in the entire education system, but often are lucrative businesses that divert large sums of money away from a quality education and towards a dubious one.

While fraud is literally as ancient as education, recent technological developments, the widespread use of the internet and of social media bring new perspectives and new challenges to the phenomenon. While internationalisation of education systems is beneficial, it also allows providers of fraudulent services to relocate to systems where the legislation is more ‘favourable’.

Ethics and integrity

The commitment to quality education, being guided by ethics and integrity, has always been a commitment of the Council of Europe and of its work on human rights, democracy and the rule of law.

An important step forward has been made with the adoption of the Recommendation on Countering Education Fraud in July 2022.

The recommendation is the result of four years of work in the framework of the ETINED Platform of the Council of Europe on ethics, integrity and transparency in education.

The ETINED Platform’s work is based on the principle that ethics, transparency and integrity are a conditio sine qua non for quality education. Therefore, education fraud can only be effectively addressed if all relevant sections of society commit fully to fundamental positive ethical principles for public and professional life rather than relying solely on regulatory measures.

The recommendation is structured along four dimensions: prevention, prosecution, international cooperation, and monitoring. The rationale is that a European approach is required in order to create a comprehensive international instrument on countering education fraud and promoting ethics, transparency and integrity in education.

The text makes six main recommendations to member states of the Council of Europe: to promote quality education by eliminating education fraud; to protect pupils, students, researchers and staff at all levels of education from organisations and individuals engaged in selling (and advertising) fraudulent services; to provide support for the implementation of preventative and protective measures, as well as a culture of equality of opportunity at all levels and in all sectors of education and training and in the transition between these sectors; to monitor technological developments that could support new forms of fraud; to facilitate international cooperation in the field; and to support wide dissemination of the recommendation.

17 articles

The appendix contains 17 articles that encompass all the aspects of education fraud, ranging from a set of definitions to protection of education terminology, passing through code of ethics, plagiarism, advertising of fraudulent services, research, use of digital tools, data collection and monitoring.

The recommendation’s goal is to assist member states in countering education fraud and promoting and supporting ethics, transparency and integrity in education, thereby assisting them in ensuring the right to education for all learners.

Education is meant in its broader scope, with all measures contained in the text applying to access to education and all levels and forms of education, from pre-primary to higher education, including vocational education and lifelong learning.

To provide a common understanding and reference for the phenomenon, the text includes definitions of education fraud, different types of mills (diploma mills, essay mills, etc), ETINED principles, plagiarism, and so on.

The articles that follow underline the crucial role of awareness raising and information provision on ethics in education, as well as the need for training. One article is devoted to plagiarism. The core concept is that curricula should be designed to put emphasis on building students’ confidence in their academic ability and on preventing activities that constitute education fraud.

Pupils, students, researchers and staff should be supported by educational institutions in the development of appropriate skills in critical thinking, academic writing and research.

This is consistent with another flagship initiative of Council of Europe, the Reference Framework of Competences for Democratic Culture (RFCDC), which aims to provide a systematic approach to designing the teaching, learning and assessment of competences for democratic culture, with a list of 20 competences to empower learners to act as competent and effective democratic citizens.

Minimising advertising

Another recommendation is to minimise the advertising of fraudulent services, which is exacerbated by the use of the web and of social media, followed by the key role of legislation and of its full enforcement.

A code of ethics should be established, based on the ETINED principles, and governing all aspects of education affected by education fraud. On codes of ethics in the field of education, the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe itself in 2019 adopted a Recommendation on fostering a culture of ethics in the teaching profession.

Protection of relevant education terminology, as well as translations of that terminology (for example, names of national degrees and of the term ‘university’ in national language), could be an effective tool in eradicating all forms of misrepresentation by education fraud providers.

A sensitive part is to protect society from education fraud by ensuring the authenticity and integrity of academic and-or professional qualifications and credentials that have a direct or indirect impact on the health, safety and physical, mental and socio-economic well-being of present and future generations.

Protection of whistle-blowers is part of the recommendation too, as is ensuring a fair and impartial trial for individuals and organisations accused of education fraud.

One specific article focuses on the use of digital solutions as a way to ensure the accessibility and integrity of data relating to students, qualifications and awards while remaining compliant with privacy laws. The article also recommends, whenever technically possible, the provision of trustworthy services for verifying diplomas and professional certificates that are simple, accessible and multilingual.

International cooperation

Data collection, evidence-based analysis and research are crucial in combating the phenomenon. International cooperation is considered as essential in this regard, for a process of monitoring national and transnational activities and exchange of information.

Many providers of fraudulent services can operate in one or more states while being located in another. Monitoring of activities of providers of fraudulent services can be done by the various actors at national level, such as a designated quality assurance agency, ombudsperson institution or other central body created under national legislation, with particular reference to the role that ENIC/NARIC centres can play, as national information centres on recognition of qualifications, as well as that of the Lisbon Recognition Convention Committee and the ENIC/NARIC networks.

The final article of the recommendation is devoted to evaluation and review, with the suggestion to states to regularly evaluate the strategies and policies they have adopted in respect of the recommendation and adapt them as appropriate.

The text is accompanied by an explanatory memorandum that provides background information and further evidence on each of the topics addressed by the recommendation.

The recommendation will be part of the ETINED plenary meeting that will take place in November 2022 and it is part of the overall effort of the Council of Europe towards a quality education that is also composed of initiatives such as the Best Practice Programme in Promoting Academic Integrity, a public call published every two years to identify, publicly recognise and disseminate relevant practices in promoting academic integrity throughout higher education institutions in Europe.

Villano Qiriazi is head of the education policy division at the Council of Europe; Luca Lantero is president of the Lisbon Recognition Convention Committee and Italian representative in the ETINED platform; and Chiara Finocchietti is expert on the ETINED working group on education fraud and director of CIMEA, the Italian ENIC-NARIC centre.