University autonomy is the key to tackling academic corruption

University leaders are likely to be more concerned about the reputational risks of misconduct than state bureaucracies are, says Ararat Osipian

四月 22, 2023
Rolls of banknotes stashed in a safe, symbolising corruption
Source: iStock

It has been a decade since the publication of the Global Corruption Report: Education by the world’s major anti-corruption agency, Transparency International – to which I contributed. The hope was that, by shedding light on the dark side of education, corruption would diminish. But the reality has proved rather frustrating.

Increases in some forms of academic corruption have been significant over recent years. Predatory journals are still on the rise, preying on unsophisticated scholars, especially cash-strapped faculty members from developing countries, eager to gain publicity or desperate to publish their works. According to one study from 2015, the number of “scholarly” articles published by fee-charging predatory journals increased from 53,000 in 2010 to an estimated 420,000 in 2014, published by around 8,000 journals. Predatory Reports’ list currently contains more than 2,500 journals, up from the 1,000 or so on Jeffrey Beall’s famous list when it was taken down in 2016. As of 2022, almost one third of the 100 largest journal publishers could be deemed predatory.

Predatory authorships are on the rise as well. In 2020, scholarly journals in Russia had no choice but to retract more than 800 papers after a probe into unethical publication practices by a commission appointed by the Russian Academy of Sciences. Russian scholarly literature, the academy found, is riddled with plagiarism and fake co-authorship, also known as gift authorship, when scholars become co-authors on a paper without having contributed to it.

Growth in the contract cheating market has also continued. In fact, the term “contract cheating” gained wide acceptance only recently, replacing earlier terms such as “ghost writing”, “essay mills” and “paper mills”. This is because paid-for cheating services have gone beyond essays and papers. Now, virtually any academic task, at any level, can be outsourced, including exam taking. And the release of the latest versions of ChatGPT has only heightened concerns about AI-facilitated cheating – even if it threatens essay mills’ business models.

In Ukraine, the number of private for-profit firms that offer dissertations for sale grew from 16 in 2009 to 46 in 2016. Such firms also offer other services, including publishing the scholarly papers needed to qualify for a doctorate. In the absence of better enforcement of academic standards, this trade will continue as long as the personal benefits exceed the costs of acquiring a doctorate.

Long considered a gold standard, American education is no longer immune from grand-scale corruption either. Since 2013, the sector has suffered several scandals that resonated in American society and globally. In 2016, for instance, the then president-elect Donald Trump agreed to pay $25 million (£20 million) to settle with 6,000 disgruntled students of his Trump University disaster, ending two class-action suits in California and a lawsuit brought by the state of New York. The victims of the alleged scam were to receive at least half of their money back.

Then the admissions bribery scandal that became known as Operation Varsity Blues further emphasised the sharp inequalities in access to higher education in the US. The legal repercussions of the scandal, which first blew up in 2019, continues until now and involve several celebrities and other wealthy individuals who allegedly bribed their kids’ way into several of America’s top universities.

Then there was the move to mass distance-learning during the pandemic, which incentivised and facilitated breaches of academic integrity because of difficulties in controlling and proctoring the learning environment. Health and safety were prioritised over quality of instruction and rigour in examinations and assessments.

Suggestions such as defining the terms of academic dishonesty, establishing clear standards of ethical conduct and increasing transparency in teaching, research and administration appear to be insufficient to curb corruption in academia. It might be useful to harness public opinion in anti-corruption campaigns and strengthen both legal measures against corruption and protection for whistleblowers.

But university leaders can themselves take a more proactive role in combating academic corruption, instead of relying on reluctant central authorities to do so. Leaders – as well as administrators, faculty and students – are likely to be more concerned about the threat posed by corruption to their individual university’s reputation and the value of their educational credentials than state bureaucracies are. This might turn out to be especially true in countries with high levels of corruption and bad governance.

But universities can take the initiative on addressing integrity concerns only under conditions of high university autonomy. Unfortunately, most countries have either entirely or predominantly public systems of higher education, characterised by weak university autonomy. Unless that changes, it seems likely that the next decade will be no better than the previous one when it comes to honesty in higher education.

Ararat L. Osipian is a founding fellow of the New University in Exile Consortium at the New School in New York and fellow of the Elliott School of International Affairs’ Institute for European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies at the George Washington University in Washington, DC.



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