Education constitutes the largest element in the public sector in many countries of the world, often accounting for over a fifth of total government public sector expenditure. Education is also particularly prone to corruption, as the latest report of Transparency International shows. Huge resources are often disbursed through complex administrative layers, inadequately monitored all the way from central government to schools.
In Nigeria this allowed at least US$21 million to be lost over two years, and double that amount in Kenya over five years. High-profile allegations of plagiarism in Germany are common, while university professors in a Greek university were recently imprisoned for the embezzlement of €8 million.
Recent cases of nepotism and embezzlement illustrate the seriousness of the problem. In 2010, out of 100 professors at the Medical School of Athens, 18 were found to be children of current or former professors of the same institution.
Persuasion in the selection process
Even in academic environments largely free from corruption, there remain opportunities for subtle politics to sway outcomes in hiring and promotion. In the Netherlands, university protocols call for open recruitment systems. However, according to one Dutch study of appointments in seven public universities from 1999 to 2003, 64 per cent of all appointed professors were recruited through closed procedures.
The researchers argue that a lack of transparency in the selection criteria contributes to ‘micropolitics’, in which individuals or groups rely on persuasion and personal relationships to shape the selection process. Finding the appropriate balance between a legitimate desire for maintaining the continuity provided by insiders and the need to ensure fair recruitment and promotion processes is challenging.
Exploding number of students
The high importance placed on education also makes it an attractive target for manipulation. Those who provide education services are in a strong position to extort favours, and are often driven to do so when corruption higher up the chain leaves them undervalued, or even unpaid.
The increase of higher education students worldwide from 32 million in 1970 to 159 million in 2008 indicates that higher education is no longer a reserve of the elite. The changing environment in which higher education institutions function brings its own particular corruption risks.
Public resources have not been able to keep pace with change, and competition for non-traditional resources and prestige places increasing pressures on higher education institutions and staff. Institutions without effective oversight and control are most prone to corruption, and in some instances this has undermined whole systems of higher education and the reputation of research products and graduates, regardless of guilt or innocence.
The report by Transparency International states that corruption in education is particularly harmful in that it normalises and breeds a social acceptance of corruption at the earliest age. As young people rarely have the ability to question the rules of the classroom, they can internalise corrupt views of what it takes to succeed, and carry these forward into society. When this becomes a social norm, its cycle begins anew in each generation.
One overarching recommendation of the Global Corruption Report: Education is the need to reach a better understanding of education as an essential tool in itself in the fight against corruption. The social role and value of the school and the teacher must be placed at the forefront of education policy and anti-corruption efforts.
Teachers are often the first targets of corruption allegations, but this is often the cause of corruption at the higher level and the nonpayment of salaries or simple undervaluation of teachers. National policy-makers should understand the teacher as a role model and the school as a microcosm of society, and train teachers to teach by example.
A significant trend in higher education, directly related to global internet access, is an avalanche of so-called ‘degree mills’. There are thousands of them, located in all regions, and there is also a Wikipedia page that lists house pets that have earned degrees.