Leveraging the education system to promote integrity

The education sector presents a significant opportunity and entry point for long-term anti-corruption work. Educating children and youth about integrity and values at primary, secondary and tertiary education levels can lead to long-term change. Education is not just about knowledge acquisition, but also character formation.

From fake diplomas to sexual exploitation

Corruption makes it harder to achieve the sustainable development goal on education for all. Teachers may have fake credentials and diplomas. Perhaps they do not teach the whole curriculum to force pupils to pay them for private tutoring. Education officials may illegally retain parts of teachers’ salaries and receive kickbacks on contracts for the procurement of school supplies. Accreditation agencies may accept bribes in return for licenses.

Teacher absenteeism is a well-known problem in many developing countries. 'Sextortion' or sexual abuse of students by teachers is also common. Sextortion is a form of corruption in which people entrusted with power – such as government officials, judges, educators, law enforcement personnel, and employers – seek to extort sexual favours in exchange for something within their authority to grant or withhold. See for example the toolkit Stopping the abuse of power through sexual exploitation.

Corrupt educators – corrupt future

Another type of corruption in the education sector involves cheating and academic dishonesty committed with the knowledge and support of office holders. It includes plagiarism, falsifying data in academic research and giving students marks they do not deserve. These types of practices undermine the foundation of the entire education system by reducing trust in the qualifications and credentials of various professions that serve societies. Moreover, when educators behave corruptly, it may negatively affect students’ beliefs and attitudes about honesty, integrity and fairness, with far-reaching effects on their own future behaviour.

Corrupt practices in the education sector are related to poor governance, based on patron-client and other informal networks of power. Corruption is also driven by social norms, informal rules, attitudes and beliefs that impose various expectations and obligations on people in positions of power and those below them. Worse still, widespread expectations of corruption can lead to a situation where people behave corruptly because they believe everyone else is corrupt and that is not worth it to behave with integrity. This is also described as a the collective behaviour problem – explained in Anti-corruption through a social norms lens.

Addressing corruption in education – sub areas

To find ways to reduce or avoid corruption problems requires a number of interventions and tools that can shift power relations and change attitudes to improve transparency and accountability. Accordingly, an important first step to mainstreaming anti-corruption in the education sector is to map the risks for corruption that can occur throughout the system and the power relations, social norms, attitudes and beliefs in which various types of corrupt practices exist. Information sources on corruption in the education sector include:

The large size of the education sector can make risk mapping seem impossible. One way to make it more manageable is to look at the system as a series of building blocks and then identify corresponding types of corruption one might expect to find in each:

Human resources for education

Teacher registration and licensing can be subverted by corruption when unqualified teachers or those with fake credentials can bribe to secure licenses.There are instances of nepotism and favouritism in teacher postings, promotions and appointments. Teachers can also abuse their positions and violate codes of conduct through sextortion, private tutoring, and to gain other private benefits. How codes of conduct are enforced can be selective and partial.

Finance and procurement

Education sector officials and bureaucrats steal public funds meant for schools, worsening the persistent problem of insufficient funding for the sector. Central or local government officials sometimes divert money meant for education to other budget items. This has serious implications for learning outcomes.

Corruption in procurement of school supplies and facilities can involve bid rigging, price inflation and kickbacks – causing poor quality or insufficient facilities. Bribes to secure contracts for textbooks are common and often involve multinational companies bribing developing country officials. See for example Oxford University Press fined £1.9m over bribery by African subsidiary firms – a case of subsidiaries bribing Kenyan and Tanzanian public officials.

In some countries, classroom buildings collapse during rainstorms or earthquakes because of poor construction, killing and injuring pupils. This was the case in the Sichuan schools corruption scandal. When contractors bribe to get construction contracts, there is less money for building materials and profits, which leads to poor quality buildings.

Supplies and logistics

Diversion of public school supplies such as stationery and textbooks to the private market causes shortages in schools - leaving the children without what they need in order to learn. Corruption includes the misuse and abuse of public property such as using school buildings, facilities and vehicles for private purposes.

Examinations and assessment

Examination fraud includes practices such as:

  • Examination 'leakages' – officials sell exam papers or questions to students in advance.
  • Impersonation – students pay other people to sit exams for them
  • Using unauthorised materials and devices in examinations.
  • Diploma and certificate mills – fake diploma certificates printed and sold
  • Changing the marks on scripts manually or electronically in exam records to reflect unearned marks.

Corruption occurs when teachers and public officials collude in these practices.

Governance and regulatory environment

Education ministries are responsible for inspecting, licensing, and regulating both public and private education providers. Through bribery, schools that are not fit for the purpose are able to obtain licenses, to the detriment of students.

Those responsible for education management information systems may include ghost teachers and schools in the system, and the funds allocated to these non-entities end up in private pockets.

Corruption in higher education

Similar problems to the ones listed above may occur in tertiary institutions such as colleges and universities. Universities are also prone to improper political or business influence in various aspects of their management, teaching and research. Awarding honorary degrees to politicians and politically motivated appointments to university leadership are questionable practices that can taint the independence and academic freedom that universities represent. Public universities may be especially prone to political interference because they rely on the central government for funding.

Lack of transparency and accountability on scientific processes and research findings used to influence public policy is a serious problem. This can lead to issues such as climate change denial or incorrect health advice, with several implications for individuals and humanity as whole. A U4 Brief Promoting global health through clinical trial transparency explains the problem.

Strategies and tools for anti-corruption in the education sector

After identifying where the problems are and how the problems relate to power relations, social norms, beliefs and attitudes, the next step to mainstreaming anti-corruption in the education sector would be to prioritise which problems are the most urgent or feasible to address. A system wide 'big bang' approach to change that tackles all at the problems at once in such a large sector would be difficult to pull off, but perhaps not entirely impossible. One way of doing this would be to conduct a public inquiry if there is a public outcry about corruption in the sector. Scandals can also justify the appointment of a special inquiry to find out what happened, how and why.

Public inquires can, however, be costly to implement or unworkable in other ways. For instance, in contexts where corruption is systemic and the governance is based on patron-client networks, inquiries investigating corruption can be politically manipulated, and themselves become subject to accusations of corruption. This happened with Uganda’s commission of inquiry into Universal Primary Education (2009 – 2012). The inquiry became mired in controversy and this cast a shadow over its findings. However, the Afghanistan Independent Joint Anti-Corruption Monitoring and Evaluation Committee concluded a 2017 ministry-wide vulnerability to corruption assessment of the ministry of education(PDF) showing a more helpful approach to assessing risks and vulnerabilities in any sector.

Implementing a number of small, carefully sequenced changes is a possible approach to tackling corruption problems in any sector. For this to work, politicians and the private-, public-, and civil society sectors have to pull together. The examples below describe tools and strategies that various countries have adopted to address corruption problems in the education sector.

Community monitoring and social accountability tools

Information and communication technologies (ICT) can improve transparency and accountability. In Uganda, SNV Netherlands and the Makerere University Faculty of Computing and Information technology developed CU@school a mobile phone application used to reduce teacher absenteeism. Every Friday, head teachers were required to type in attendance figures of boys and girls and of male and female teachers, using a simple pre-loaded form on their mobile phone. The form was sent to a digital database, replacing paper forms and separate manual data entry. The data could be visualised (graphs, tables, geographical maps) real-time on the computers of district officials for their action. To engage school communities, the programme also sent information to newspapers and local radio shows. These informed communities on what was happening in schools and examples of collaboration between parents, school management and local officials to improve schools. Unfortunately, the programme was not extended after the pilot.

Parents, students and local officials can also monitor teacher presence by physically checking and reporting whether they show up in class, as done in a CARE programme in Cambodia.

Teacher salaries

Teacher absenteeism is symptomatic of wider systemic problems such as notoriously low teacher salaries and lack of affordable, quality accommodation and transport for these professionals. Not many developing countries can afford to pay teachers much more than they earn at present, and in any case, increasing salaries will not necessarily reduce corruption. One Minister of Education proposed paying teachers an hourly rate rather than a monthly salary to change incentives and thereby reduce absenteeism.

The Indian State of Rajasthan tried a version of this approach in 2006 to improve teacher attendance in 60 non-formal education centres. Each teacher was given a camera with a tamper-proof date and time function, along with instructions to have one of the children photograph the teacher and other students at the beginning and end of the school day. The time and date stamp on the photographs were used to track teacher attendance, and a teacher’s salary was calculated based on attendance. This caused an immediate decline in teacher absence. The absence rate (measured using unannounced visits both in treatment and comparison schools) changed from an average of 43% in the comparison schools to 24% in the treatment schools. For more information see the report Monitoring works: Getting teachers to come to school (PDF).

Community monitoring can also be used to monitor procurement and delivery of school supplies to prevent theft and diversion, as described in Doing accountability differently – A proposal for the vertical integration of civil society monitoring and advocacy.

Public expenditure tracking surveys

Public expenditure tracking surveys (PETS) have been used to reduce the diversion, theft and embezzlement of money meant for schools in Uganda, Tanzania, and Zambia. A World Bank Report (PDF) summarises different countries’ approaches and results. PETS are used to 'follow' non-salary expenditures such as facilitation grants for schools, which are prone to leakages.

Teacher codes of conduct

A useful UNESCO–IIEP report from 2009, Teacher codes – learning from experience (PDF), shows how different countries have developed and enforced codes of conduct or ethics. These are documents that lay down values, principles of action, standards of behaviour and modes of operation for the profession. A breach of the code results in sanctions such as suspension or a cancelled teaching licence.

Codes can be difficult to implement because of political and social factors such as unwillingness. The significant amount of time and resources required to investigate violations and enforce appropriate sanctions is another bar to their effectiveness. The report says application and enforcement of codes are more likely to occur when the responsibility for the code and disciplinary action is clearly defined and an independent body such as a permanent commission oversees implementation. Continuous professional development, regular communication with teachers through newsletters, hotlines, and websites can also improve adherence to codes.

Enforcing teachers’ codes of conduct is an important administrative tool that can address types of corruption that do not necessarily amount to criminal behaviour such as absenteeism or illegal private tutoring. Code of conduct enforcement can also compliment criminal sanctions where it is appropriate.

Linking with the national anti-corruption strategy

Conventional anti-corruption tools aimed at prevention, detection, and punishment for corrupt acts apply to the education sector, too. Most countries have national anti-corruption strategies that apply across sectors. Measures include audits, automation, open data, open procurement, access to information laws and procedures, whistleblowing and complaints mechanisms.

Civil society monitoring and oversight is always important. The private sector is an important actor, too, due to the prevalence of public-private partnerships for education in many developing countries.

Further reading

Afghanistan Independent Joint Anti-Corruption Monitoring & Evaluation Committee. 2017. Analysis of corruption vulnerabilities across the Afghan school education system (PDF)

Transparency International. 2013. Global corruption report – Education (PDF)

World Bank. 2013. Fighting corruption in education: A call for sector integrity standards

UNDP. 2011. Fighting corruption in the education sector: methods, tools and good practices (PDF)

Poisson, M., and Hallak, J. 2007. Corrupt schools, corrupt universities: what can be done? (PDF)