Understanding the Causes and Social Costs of Academic Corruption

This article reflects on the causes and impact of academic corruption in afflicted countries, as well as the global costs and prevalence of corruption at large.

Academic fraud and corruption, in all their forms, are of obvious concern to international educators. Of equal concern are the broader, societywide impacts that such misconduct both breeds and stems from.

Given the crucial role that education has in forming the moral values and norms of societies, academic corruption has a defining impact far beyond the classroom. Research has shown that it is correlated to a wide variety of factors ranging from increased infant mortality to higher drop-out rates in school [2] and lower government spending on education [3]

Corruption in academic settings also tends to weaken economic development and perpetuate poverty levels and social inequalities. The prevalence of wide-scale bribery in school admissions, for instance, increases the costs of education, thereby limiting access among lower income students. In highly afflicted countries, corruption deteriorates educational quality and increases the risk of unqualified practitioners in professions with critical public impact, such as medicine, nursing, education, architecture, or law.

Where Is Corruption Most Prevalent?

Although corruption often tends to be deeply rooted in countries with weak political institutions, it would be a mistake to assume that developed democracies with stable institutions are immune to the problem. In one high-profile case, the German industry giant Siemens was in 2008 slapped with the largest corporate fine for bribery in history (USD $1.6 billion [4]), after securing foreign business contracts all over the world with bribes and kickbacks for two decades. Germany also has a flourishing ghostwriting industry with an estimated three percent [5] of Ph.D. theses being written by so-called “dissertation advisors.”

A known problem in the U.S., meanwhile, is the prevalence of “pay for play” research in sectors like the pharmaceutical [6] or financial services [7] industries. Industry-funded academics in these cases present ostensibly independent research to regulatory institutions without disclosing their funding sources. The U.S. is also the leading host country [8] for diploma mills worldwide.

A look at Transparency International’s (TI) 2016 Global Corruption Perceptions Index [9], however, shows that most of the higher ranked (clean) countries are, with some exceptions, mature industrialized democracies, whereas the most corrupt countries are largely developing countries with high social inequalities and less participatory forms of governance in Africa, Asia, the Middle East and Latin America. Of note is also a high level of corruption in post-Communist countries in Central Asia and Europe, including Russia.

Summarizing existing research on the causes of corruption, Indian researchers Meet and Narayan [10] found that factors contributing to corruption in education and elsewhere include monopolized political power, low accountability of public officials, intrusive business regulations and dependency on commodity exports (oil), whereas factors like high GDP per capita, established liberal democracy, free press and openness to international trade are negatively correlated to corruption. Generalizations beyond these broader trends, however, are hard to make, especially since corruption is difficult to measure and quantify. Whereas less democratic states like Singapore [11] and Rwanda [12] have a comparatively low incidence of corruption, some democratic countries like India [13] may be plagued by considerable corruption problems in the education system.

A map showing the 20 least and and the 20 most corrupt countries in 2016 (out of 176 countries). [14]

In highly corrupt countries, corruption is not merely an opportunistic criminal activity of a few “bad apples,” but a systemic phenomenon entrenched in social norms and the political system. This type of endemic corruption has the most immediate impact on people’s daily lives and also tends to have a profoundly corrosive effect on education.

The manifestations of academic corruption in profoundly corrupt countries are manifold and range from “petty corruption” in the form of bribery for admission, good grades, graduation or the hiring of teachers to “grand corruption” by political actors embezzling funds allocated to public procurement projects, such as the construction of schools. Other examples of corrupt practices include the sale of school textbooks on black markets or the criminal capture of government allocations for non-existent “ghost teachers” and “ghost schools”.

Why is the Education Sector Vulnerable to Corruption?

The extent to which education is affected by corruption varies from country to country, but the education system often ranks among the most vulnerable sectors (for example in Vietnam1 [15] or Nepal [16]). Among the causes for this are the high social importance of education and the fact that education expenditures are usually one of the largest, if not the main post on government budgets, averaging 15 percent [17] of total government allocations worldwide in 2013. The education sector is often one of the biggest sources of employment and education funds are dispersed nationwide to a multitude of actors, which tends to weaken administrative oversight and increase the chances of “leakage”. In most societies, educational attainment is also a primary means of social advancement, making education a vital necessity and leaving many people in a position of dependency.

This is especially the case if access to education is limited. Some countries are overburdened by rapidly mounting demand for education, fueled by population growth, increased income levels and social mobility. Governments in these cases often struggle to catch up with demand, lacking the funds to build universities, maintain quality standards and pay adequate salaries to academic staff.

The combination of low teacher pay and limited access to education is a fertile ground for petty corruption in admissions, for instance, as it creates asymmetrical dependencies between underpaid instructors and students with limited options.

Nigeria is a good example: access problems in the country are currently so severe that less than one third of applicants [18] gain access to university. As corruption researcher Ararat Osipian has noted, limited “access to education [in Nigeria] … contributed to the use of bribes and personal connections to gain coveted places at universities, with some admissions officials reportedly working with agents to obtain bribes from students. Those who have no ability or willingness to resort to corruption face lost opportunities and unemployment.”2 [19]

Privatization as a Panacea?

Sound arguments can be made that privatization lessens corruption since it weakens the monopoly of corrupt state bureaucracies. The World Bank, for instance, considers “[d]eregulation and the expansion of markets … powerful tools for controlling corruption, and … encourage[s] governments to pursue these goals wherever feasible [20].” However, the Bank also warns that privatization of state assets without adequate political reforms can cause “well-intended policies … [to] lead to poor outcomes and even greater corruption [20]”. Decreased governmental oversight may create new opportunities for graft, while the slashing of public budgets may lead to a loss of income for public servants and other groups, thereby contributing to the spread of corrupt practices.

Privatization without simultaneous political reforms, thus, often tends to produce corruption-prone “crony capitalism.” Egypt is often cited as an example [21]: Many Egyptians viewed the privatization of state-owned industries under the autocratic regime of President Hosni Mubarak as “synonymous with corruption and job losses [22].” Social unrest mounted when the “act of selling state companies … [became] radioactive because … a skeptical public … believed that the transactions were riddled with corruption and insider dealing [23]”.

In the education sector, increased competition between public and private universities can lead to great improvements in educational quality. Breakneck-speed privatization of the higher education sector in many countries, however, has thus far failed to produce top-quality universities that could compete with public institutions, but rather facilitated the mushrooming of low-quality providers, including fraudulent outfits. Compared to state institutions, many of these schools are driven by profit-maximization, even in cases where they are barred from making profit by law. In Chile, for example, private universities were reportedly able to overcome such restrictions via “workarounds including exorbitant payouts to administrators, nepotism, and the creation of … shadow corporations [24].”

Increased competition and the commodification of education also contribute the cutting of corners in education in general. Private Japanese universities, for instance, are engaged in a “race to the bottom [25],” relying increasingly on international student enrollments to stave off bankruptcy – a fact said to cause institutions to literally accept “any student who applies [26].” As prominent international education scholar Philip G. Altbach put it, higher education has “marketized” over the past decades: “it adopted more and more commercial values, including a greater predilection for corruption, and a greater distance from traditional academic values [27]”.

Transition Countries

Of particular note are post-Communist countries – a group of states that has proven highly vulnerable to corruption. The situation in these countries was challenging from the onset, since respect for the law was not an internalized social norm under Communist rule. As political scientist Gerry Mackie [28] points out, law in the Soviet Union, for instance, was “… purely instrumental, based only on … punishment. Law was alien and external to the population; the state itself acted arbitrarily and was not constrained by law. Widespread social norms of getting around the law emerged in response, norms of bribery and corruption that would be pathological in better political circumstances.”

The absence of external constraints by the often weak and untested new political institutions after the fall of Communism created a vacuum in which this lack of internalization caused corruption to become endemic. Government assets were sold off in a nontransparent privatization process often benefitting government cronies. Demand for suddenly available Western consumer goods and hard currency increased incentives [29] for corruption that were more limited under Communist rule, while bribery in state bureaucracies [30] spread relatively unchecked in education and other public sectors.

Global Costs of Corruption

Since corruption is usually a covert activity, its total socioeconomic costs are difficult to measure. They are, however, anything but negligible. Recent studies [31] estimate that, in 2015, the annual costs of bribery alone were as high as USD $1.5 trillion to USD $2 trillion worldwide, or about 2 percent of global GDP. In Mexico, for example, five to nine percent [32] of the country’s annual GDP is currently lost to corruption. Endemic corruption in Brazil, likewise, is said to result in the loss of 3 to 5 percent of economic output [33] annually, while the Organization of African Unity estimated that the volume of corruption in Africa at the beginning of the 2000s amounted to as much as 25 percent of GDP [34] on the continent.

The Impact on Affected Countries

Corruption wastes precious resources and raises the costs of education, pricing out less affluent social groups. The social impact of corruption in afflicted countries contributes to class divides, exploitation, and poverty. Corruption researchers Jacques Hallak and Muriel Poisson note [35] that several studies have shown that:

“…. poor people tend to be more dependent on corrupt officials, as they rely more on public services and are less capable of paying extra costs associated with bribery and fraud; furthermore, as they are less educated and less informed, they are easier to manipulate. At the same time, corrupt practices are major obstacles to poverty alleviation, as they sabotage policies and programmes aiming at reducing poverty and capture resources targeted at the poor.”

In some corruption-prone countries, the siphoning off of funds allocated to advancing education squanders educational opportunities for sometimes millions of children. In Pakistan, for instance, corrupt officials rampantly divert funds for non-existent staff in so-called “ghost schools”. It was estimated that the number of ghost schools in the province of Sindh alone in 2009 was as high as 6,480, while 5,000 elementary ghost schools were said to exist in neighboring Baluchistan in 2011.3 [36] India, meanwhile, has one of the highest rates of teacher absenteeism in the world with ghost teachers reportedly draining more than 20 percent [37] of education spending.

Bribery and nepotism in the hiring of teachers brings unqualified teachers into classrooms and lowers the quality of instruction. Equally important, corruption and fraud in professional education and licensing exposes societies to charlatan practitioners. According to the newspaper India Today, fake degrees in India “can be so easily procured that the Indian Medical Association estimates 45 per cent of Indian medical practitioners – 700,000 doctors – to be unqualified and lacking formal training [38].” Such widespread problems erode trust in academic institutions and even entire education systems. Turkey’s Council of Higher Education, for instance, announced in 2012 that it would no longer recognize degrees from Bulgaria, stating that examinations fraud and the counterfeiting of diplomas in the country “had reached organized crime proportions [39]”.

This blanket blacklisting of graduates illustrates that is often bona fide students who suffer the most from fraudulent practices. A few bad apples can have a disproportionate impact, not unlike the effect that a recall of a faulty production run can have on the reputation of companies. The spread of corruption in China’s academia, for instance, endangers the country’s aspirations to become a bigger player in international science. As Hong Kong academic Rui Yang points out [40], growing corruption threatens “the global reputation of China’s universities and research will be affected. International partners will lose interest in collaborating … and even stop using research from China. In the long run, China’s ambitious bid for an innovation-driven nation will be severely damaged”.

1. [41] Stephanie Chow and Dao Thi Nga: Bribes for enrollment in desired schools in Vietnam, In: Transparency International. Global Corruption Report: Education. Oxford and New York: Routledge, 2013, pp. 60 -67. https://www.transparency.org/whatwedo/publication/global_corruption_report_education [42]

2. [43]. Osipian, Ararat L. 2013. Recruitment and admissions: Fostering transparency on the path to higher education. In: Transparency International. Global Corruption Report, op.cit, pp. 148-154, p. 149.

3. [44] Syed Adil Gilani: Ghost schools in Pakistan, in: In: Transparency International, op.cit., pp. 40-44.