How to tackle global academic corruption

In my recent edited collection, Corruption in Higher Education: Global challenges and responses, 34 authors – including educators, policy-makers and practitioners from all five continents – reported on various corruption issues in higher education using examples from multiple countries and regions. The main takeaways from the collection are as follows.

Academic corruption is not always visible

Academic dishonesty among students at Eastern European universities is often visible and can be measured. At these universities, there is still a strong tradition of rote learning and the reproduction of knowledge. Therefore, the demand for cheat sheets is high.

Western European universities, however, have different problems, with practices like contract cheating and the outsourcing of writing assignments becoming routine. The scale of this market is difficult to quantify, but there are concerning indications.

For instance, when measures were taken against the providers of these services in the United Kingdom, it triggered a crisis in Kenya, where young, highly qualified graduates lost their jobs in the academic writing industry, which had provided them with a stable and lucrative income.

Academic corruption is ambivalent

For many young scholars, a permanent position in academia is the dream. Studies from Sweden, however, suggest that the hiring process is often just window dressing. Hiring committees almost always know in advance who will get the advertised position and are only pretending to be looking for someone.

Often the chosen candidate already works at the prospective university or belongs to the inner circle of decision-makers and has worked with them on other projects. While it is logical to hire someone who is familiar with the processes at a specific university and human instinct to support friends, this means that newcomers without an established network have few opportunities.

Academic corruption is complex

The complexity of academic corruption makes it difficult to develop and implement remedies and other measures. For example, not all fake universities are created equal, and the term fake university covers several different kinds of entity.

One example of a fake university is Trump University, whose main purpose was to make a profit. It imitated teaching and research to this end. Another example of a fake university is when the authorities in the United States create fake universities as a trap to catch international students who are only pretending to be enrolled.

In India, there is the problem of ‘non-attending students’. Students pay a lot of money for their studies and, therefore, expect to receive a degree. Attending courses and fulfilling other obligations are not necessarily part of the package for these students.

But fake universities and fake degrees can also be more traditional in scope, like selling scam diplomas from real universities or real diplomas from scam universities. The perpetrator of the 2011 terrorist attack in Norway, for example, sold fake diplomas on his website. This brought him a significant amount of money that, in turn, enabled the attack that killed 77 people.

Therefore, the many faces of fake universities are a challenge for policy-makers. Depending on the type of fake university, the necessary solution could be completely different.

Corruption research is interdisciplinary

Corruption research in academia is interdisciplinary. Scholars have different views on the terminology of corruption; they may be open only to certain topics and areas or work with a variety of theoretical frameworks and methodologies.

In addition to researchers, there are many practitioners, such as deans, university administrators, quality assurance agencies and journalists who deal with this topic.

Despite this variety, they all have one thing in common: they are concerned about corruption in higher education. They are also committed to starting a global dialogue about this issue across disciplines and among scholars, practitioners and decision-makers. This cooperation needs to be strengthened.

Next steps

First, it is crucial to develop further the theory of academic integrity and seek out innovative approaches to mitigating corruption, even in endemically corrupt environments, as I did, for example, with Russia and Ukraine.

Second, it is important to look at academic integrity at secondary schools. It is obvious that students who cheat at universities have experienced misconduct in the past. Starting to analyse this issue before they enter university could prevent and-or combat cheating within higher education institutions more efficiently.

Third, it is necessary to take into account technological trends. I anticipate that many cheating techniques, especially those used by young people, remain under the radar of scholars, educators, parents and other decision-makers, particularly with the rapid spread of technology. Nevertheless, technology can be used to identify some forms of academic dishonesty.

Fourth, it is essential not to stigmatise certain social groups, such as international students, who often make headlines for lapses in academic integrity. International students may simply be more visible because the domestic students who engage in misconduct are more sophisticated or subtle, or because faculty members and administrators are biased in their assumptions of academic inferiority on the part of international students.

Finally, the entire research agenda on academic integrity would benefit enormously from close cooperation among scholars and practitioners around the world, including studies conducted and published in languages other than English. My edited volume is currently being translated into Chinese and once translated, will be published by Shanghai Jiao Tong University Press.

Elena Denisova-Schmidt is a privatdozentin at the University of St Gallen (HSG) in Switzerland and a research fellow at the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College in the United States. E-mail: She has two works forthcoming which this article draws on: Breaking the Bonds of Corruption: From academic dishonesty to corrupt business practices in post-Soviet Ukraine, from Harvard University Press, and “Academic integrity and international students: An inclusive approach” in the International Handbook of Academic Integrity, Springer, edited by SE Eaton.