Corruption in universities: a blueprint for reform

Corruption in the academy is being challenged by a ‘clean universities’ ranking and the power of press coverage, says Alina Mungiu-Pippidi

November 21, 2013

Source: Miles Cole

What is to be done when an entire education system is corrupted, when universities sell cheap diplomas and the best academics move abroad?

Consider the case of Romania, where corruption has been pervasive for more than 20 years. Government ministers are proven serial plagiarists, students acquire their dissertations for modest sums online, and a failure to investigate allows widespread cheating to take place without censure. Everyone gets a degree, nearly all MPs are also professors at a university they helped to gain accreditation through their influence, and all seem to benefit; however, no Romanian university features in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings and the country is stagnating without skilled labour.

In 2007, the Romanian Academic Society, an education thinktank, convened a group of students, education unions, journalists and others to form the Coalition for Clean Universities. The aim was to develop a university integrity ranking, both to name and shame those failing in their duties, and to celebrate and spread good practice.

Under the coalition’s methodology, each public university is given a governance audit by an evaluation team composed of both faculty and students (all volunteers). A standardised freedom of information request is sent to every university, followed by a field assessment during which management, academics and students are interviewed. Crucial to the success of the integrity ranking is the existence of freedom of information laws, which compel public institutions to provide data when asked. Universities that decline to answer are told that they will be assigned a rank anyway, so there is an incentive to cooperate to improve their position.

The assessment focuses on four categories. The first – transparency and responsiveness – looks at general information that should be freely available to all. The list is long but it includes universities’ ethics codes, sources of funding, recruitment procedures and a list of faculty, their CVs and the curriculum they teach. A university’s score in this category is based on the number of documents received out of the 20 that are requested, with some weighting for the quality of the information and any delay. The documents collected at this stage, both on- and offline, also help with the next steps of the assessment.

The second category assesses academic integrity, such as the rules for reporting fraud, addressing misconduct and dealing with whistleblowers. And the extent to which these rules are enforced is also considered; for example, if no case of plagiarism is recorded, it is more likely that there is no enforcement than that it has never occurred.

The third category, on governance quality, evaluates procedures for recruitment, teaching and decision-making. Are jobs and fellowships properly advertised? Are examinations fair? Is promotion merit-based or nepotistic? Are earnings higher for academics who have had a greater number of peer-reviewed papers published? This category also looks at whether the university is managed with the input of both faculty and students.

The fourth examines financial management, looking at the risks of embezzlement or other financial irregularities. The evaluators check whether financial documents are accessible, look at procurement rules, and even assess whether the lifestyle of university managers is in line with their income. Romanian law demands that all public servants publish their income and a statement of assets. It is not uncommon that public managers with a declared average income of less than €1,000 per month (wages are very low) drive expensive cars and buy luxury property.

A total of 100 points can be awarded across the four categories, with points deducted for situations of exceptional gravity, for instance scandals about fake diplomas.

In Romania, the exercise was undertaken twice in two years to allow universities to improve their performance, and a ranking was given from zero to five stars. No university earned a place in the top category, although 14 per cent received no stars. The best performers received their awards publicly in the first evaluation round in 2009, and the news was broadcast on television.

The effect was an immediate improvement in university transparency.

More than a quarter of Romanian universities now publish all procurement costs online, and in the second year of the assessment more than a third improved in this category. One institution even hired a deputy rector “for transparency”. Universities also started to advertise teaching jobs for the first time, although competition for some posts remains low, because of the perception that they are “reserved” for certain people.

By putting education reform at the top of the public agenda, the coalition helped to bring about new regulations, adopted in 2011, that seek to limit nepotism and increase the role of students in quality assurance. It also helped to empower reformers within universities to fight for the coalition’s guidelines, for example, when confronting bad governance or university management corruption.

There are many lessons from Romania’s experience, not least that broad coalitions are more effective in demanding integrity than isolated organisations. However, the impact of the new regulations has proved limited. After all, if strong demand exists in a society for diplomas earned without real merit, corrupt universities will continue to deliver them. A 2013 European corruption survey for a European Union-funded project called ANTICORRP found that in Balkan countries, as well as Ukraine and Greece, the overwhelming majority of respondents believe success in both the public and private sectors is largely driven by “connections”, not work.

For reform to succeed, significant critical mass is needed to challenge such informal rules. New laws do not deliver change by themselves. People need to increase the demand for good governance by applying for every academic job, even if they presume some shadowy deal exists to determine the winner. The battle in Romania is far from over.

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