After decades of inattention to higher education, the development community now recognises that universities provide the human capital necessary for technological catch-up and faster growth. Amid rapid liberalisation of the sector, higher education enrolments have increased across the developing world. However, corruption and fraud in higher education is a growing global problem, one with grave implications for institutions and for society at large. 

Unethical practices deny access to applicants who lack special connections and produce graduates who may not be competent in their fields. Public health and safety may be jeopardised when research results are falsified or when unqualified graduates practice medicine or other professions. Dishonesty in higher education can further erode integrity and cohesion in the wider society, so addressing corruption in this sector is essential in breaking the vicious cycle of corruption society-wide.

Forms of corruption in higher education

Manifestations of corruption and fraud in higher education include, among others:

Political manipulation of university affairs. Governments and ruling parties often interfere in the running of institutions, which may be captured for political or financial gain. 

Corruption in licensing and accreditation. As a degree is often the foundation for a professional license, the stakes for accreditation are high, creating incentives for bribery and fraud in the accreditation process. 

Corruption in student admissions. In 2019, a scandal in the United States exposed unethical practices used by wealthy parents to fraudulently obtain university places for their children. In many countries, bribery can earn a pass mark on entrance examinations, or test questions may be leaked in advance to give some applicants an unfair advantage. Unscrupulous recruitment agencies may encourage and assist international applicants to fabricate their credentials.

Corruption in staff recruitment and promotion. Nepotism and favouritism affect the hiring and promotion of academic and non-academic staff, as highlighted by a scandal in Italy in 2017.

Financial mismanagement and procurement fraud. Funds can be diverted through fraud linked to payroll and stipends, procurement, and travel. Internal control and external oversight of financial processes are often weak.

Academic dishonesty. Rampant in developed and developing countries, academic fraud includes plagiarism, essay mills, falsification of research results, fake journals and fake peer reviews, examination fraud, and diploma mills. Technological devices such as mobile phones have broadened the means for cheating. 

Sextortion. Sexual harassment of female students, faculty, and staff by males in the university system is a serious problem. A 2018 report on sexual harassment from Makerere University in Uganda examines the problem in detail.

Combatting corruption in higher education

Tackling corruption in academia is the responsibility of students, faculty, university administrators, ministry of education officials, higher education regulatory agencies, and professional regulatory bodies. Governments must enforce adequate regulations and standards while also respecting academic freedom and avoiding political interference in university affairs. There is a large role for civil society, especially professional and trade associations, and for development partners.

Accreditation bodies should ensure that accreditation processes are transparent and adhere to the law. Conflicts of interest involving members of accreditation bodies with ties to university promoters must be prevented.

External quality assurance by independent regulatory agencies is crucial. In Romania, an independent university ranking system that includes academic integrity and financial probity as assessment criteria has helped improve university governance.

Professional regulatory bodies such as medical councils and engineers’ boards, which licence graduates to practice, are gatekeepers to the professions. As such, they can prevent individuals implicated in academic corruption from being allowed to practice. They maintain registers of credentialed professionals, and should strike from the register those who engage in fraud. They also issue codes of conduct and regulations for professionals. 

Every higher education institution should have a policy that defines plagiarism and other forms of academic dishonesty. The policy should set out procedures to be followed when wrongdoing is suspected or proved, along with sanctions. Curbing corruption should be an explicit feature of universities’ internal quality assurance systems, which should ensure transparency in staff recruitment, student admission, and financial management. 

The proliferation of diploma mills makes it imperative to verify academic credentials. For example, the South African National Qualifications Framework promotes genuine qualifications through its regulatory framework, national records, and counter-fraud strategy. 

Strategies for improving admission and assessment processes include use of external examiners; cybersecurity measures to protect student records; external audits of admission decisions; sanctions on politicians and civil servants with fake degrees; and legislative protection of whistleblowers. International recruitment agencies should be vetted to ensure they have a track record in working with reputable institutions, are appropriately licensed, and use ethical recruitment methods.

Anti-corruption practitioners can harness information and communication technologies, including anti-plagiarism software such as Turnitin. Higher education institutions should have robust information management systems that are secure from manipulation by those who operate them as well as hackers and cyberattacks.

University policies on sexual harassment need to be better enforced. Training students and staff on appropriate sexual behaviour is important. So is ensuring that registration, finance, and results systems are streamlined and automated to reduce opportunities for sextortion.

A role for donors

Development assistance should support initiatives to improve integrity in higher education. Donors can help build networks of universities that work together to promote academic integrity. The Universities Against Corruption Initiative, supported by the United Nations Development Programme, mobilised 2,000 students at 23 universities in Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, and Tunisia to combat corruption in academia.

Donors should require anti-corruption compliance in universities they partner with for scholarships and research grants. They should assess universities for compliance before they underwrite scholarship schemes, and thoroughly vet the qualifications of candidates. By supporting training on academic integrity, development partners can encourage scholarship beneficiaries to become integrity trendsetters when they return to their countries.

Donors also support capacity-building, infrastructure, and research projects in developing-country universities. Within this framework, they can foster research, technical cooperation, and information technology solutions to promote academic integrity, such as by supporting acquisition of anti-plagiarism software.

Finally, donors should support efforts by accreditation agencies to develop integrated anti-corruption strategies in higher education that can promote transparency and accountability in all aspects of university life.