Corruption in education threatens the well-being of society because it erodes social trust, worsens inequality, and exposes children to unethical behaviour. It sabotages development by undermining the formation of educated, competent, and ethical individuals for future leadership and the labour force.

Corruption contributes to poor education outcomes. Embezzlement or diversion of school funds deprives already underfunded schools of resources. Nepotism and favouritism can lead to hiring of poorly qualified teachers, while bid-rigging can result in textbooks and supplies of inferior quality. Children who are harassed for sex by teachers may drop out of school. When families must pay bribes or fraudulent ‘fees’ for educational services that are supposed to be free, this puts poor students at a disadvantage and reduces equal access to education.

Sector-specific approaches to anti-corruption reform enable stakeholders to target specific instances of corrupt behaviour and the incentives underlying them. A variety of tools are available to help practitioners map education corruption, work with stakeholders to identify priority problems, and devise and implement mitigation strategies.

Mapping education corruption

Reform should begin with a risk assessment or other means of mapping the types of corruption in the education sector of a given country and the underlying incentives that allow corruption to flourish.

In primary and secondary education, one broad area of corruption is policy making, planning, and school management. Specific examples include cheating and other academic violations; bribery, nepotism, and favouritism in school admissions, teacher appointments, and inspection and licensing of school facilities; corruption in the procurement of textbooks and school supplies; and theft or diversion of funds and equipment.

In Afghanistan, for instance, parents report that government officials and teachers are selling textbooks to students instead of issuing them free. In Kenya, more than $54 million in education aid funds was misappropriated by ministry officials, and donors pulled the plug. In Romania, after the government launched an anti-cheating campaign, the pass rate on key examinations was cut almost in half.

A second major area of corruption is teacher management and professional conduct. This includes corruption in recruitment, posting, and promotion; teacher misconduct, including rampant absenteeism; sextortion and school-related gender-based violence; and exploitation of child labour in schools. Some school systems have “ghost teachers” who are permanently absent or who simply do not exist, yet whose salaries continue to be paid to someone—or pocketed by officials. In Nigeria, in the first half of 2016, allegations of ghost teachers or teachers collecting more than their official salary were made in 8,000 cases. Teachers may be physically abusive, exploit their pupils for sex or unpaid labour, or demand that families pay illegal ‘fees’. In Botswana in 2001, 67% of girls reported sexual harassment by teachers. In China, a school forced pupils to assemble fireworks so that officials and others could profit.

Assessment of corruption risks and formulation of mitigation strategies must be a locally owned, locally led process to ensure political buy-in and feasibility. Context mapping, using tools such as political economy analysis, power and influence analysis, and the Integrity of Education Systems (INTES) approach, can help practitioners recognise where corruption problems exist and identify likely allies or opponents of suggested reforms. Development actors should prioritise the most urgent problems. They should engage in dialogue and consensus building to agree on what to tackle first, taking into account the political feasibility of different anti-corruption strategies.

Tools for anti-corruption strategies in education

Once corruption risks have been assessed, appropriate interventions, adapted to the local context, can be designed and implemented. Key factors to bear in mind when choosing a strategy are political feasibility, cost, and the social and economic context—for instance, gender roles, literacy levels, internet access, and other factors that affect civic engagement. Monitoring, evaluation, and learning should be built into the reforms so that measures can adapt to changing contextual realities.

Practitioners can use transparency- and accountability-promoting tools to tackle corrupt behaviours and the incentives underlying them. Information and communication technologies are important tools for transparency; for example, India’s ‘I Paid a Bribe’ website is one of the best-known platforms for crowdsourcing complaints about bribery. Other transparency tools include participatory budgeting, Public Expenditure Tracking Surveys, and social audits. Social audits have been used to improve rubbish collection in Kyrgyzstan, education infrastructure in Timor Leste, and water supply in Kenya, among many examples.

Accountability-promoting tools include performance-based contracting for teachers, teacher codes of conduct, community monitoring, complaints mechanisms, salary reform, procurement reform, and public financial management reforms. A 2015 study in Kenya found that locally hired, short-term contract, monitored teachers worked harder; this in turn helped improve learning outcomes. The Philippines Textbook Count initiative involved civil society, including Boy Scouts, in monitoring procurement and delivery of textbooks to ensure that textbooks reached the schools.

Incorporating values, integrity, and anti-corruption education into school curricula is a long-term strategy mandated by the United Nations Convention Against Corruption, one that is being implemented in countries around the world.

Role of development partners

In many developing countries, there is space for anti-corruption reforms despite endemic corruption and a culture of rent seeking and favouritism. There is no single blueprint for tackling corruption in education, but progress can be—and has been—made in reducing resource leakage and in controlling criminal and unethical behaviour that compromises learning outcomes.

Bilateral development agencies can support participatory planning processes for the education sector that include corruption risk analyses and mitigation strategies. They can support technical assistance for political economy assessments, systems analysis, and other approaches to risk assessment. Assessments should build on synergies with gender analysis and human rights approaches to ensure that anti-corruption measures address inequity and vulnerability. In addition to supporting strategically chosen anti-corruption measures, donors should consider increasing allocations to the education sector, with appropriate safeguards, in order to promote the realisation of inclusive and quality education for all.