A report that details “significant corruption” in higher education worldwide – including professors with fake doctoral degrees in Russia and officials at a Japanese university adjusting results to keep out female students – warns that quality bodies lack the mechanisms to uncover and root out corruption.
Researchers from Coventry University undertook an in-depth literature review and conducted an international survey of quality assurance bodies around the world. Their report, sponsored and published by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation – the US group of degree-awarding institutions – and its International Quality Group, not only finds “significant corruption in higher education” but also that quality bodies around the world often lack the procedures necessary to unearth corruption.
The researchers surveyed 69 quality assurance bodies from Europe, North, South and Central America, Africa, the Middle East and Asia-Pacific, as well as conducting interviews with 22 leaders of these bodies and with higher education experts. Although quality assurance bodies have a range of sanctions to apply if they find corruption, “most methods adopted for evaluating institutions are unlikely to uncover evidence of corruption”, says the report, Policies and Actions of Accreditation and Quality Assurance Bodies to Counter Corruption in Higher Education.
For example, quality assurance bodies rely too heavily on institutional self-assessments and planned visits. “You are not going to find corruption this way; it won’t automatically surface,” Irene Glendinning, academic manager for student experience at Coventry and a co-author of the report, told Times Higher Education.
The most significant finding was how little quality assurance agencies were doing about corruption and how low it was on their agenda. Many felt that it was not part of their remit, said Professor Glendinning.
“And the 69 quality assurance agencies who actually responded to our survey are the ones who are most aware of corruption, but there are more,” she said. “We found evidence of corruption everywhere, not just those that you expect but every country in the world…If quality assurance agencies and accreditation bodies are really interested in standards, they should be looking for this and doing something.”
Despite the evidence of dishonesty in the regulatory process – such as corruption in the appointment of institutional leaders or unqualified panel members, in the form of bribery, nepotism or favouritism – 64 per cent of respondents expressed no concerns about this type of corruption. Recent investigations in Russia into the qualifications of university rectors revealed that in the past 15 years, 60 of 300 successfully defended dissertations by current rectors had been 100 per cent plagiarised.
The report also found that less than one-third of questionnaire respondents expressed any concerns about corruption in teaching despite evidence of its prevalence, according to Professor Glendinning.
The paper reported examples of teachers being pressured to pass students and of management imposing “standardisation” on student grades to counter high failure rates. Other examples of corruption in teaching included staff demanding sexual favours from students in return for better grades. The report also pointed out that gender discrimination was still evident in a number of countries: in 2018, Tokyo Medical University was revealed to have systematically rigged its admissions to exclude many women.
The level of awareness of and action to tackle corruption varies across the world, said Professor Glendinning. Russia, Nigeria, India, the western Balkans and other areas show a high awareness of the problem but not necessarily action.
Professor Glendinning highlighted the UK’s Quality Assurance Agency and Australia’s Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency, as well as similar bodies in New Zealand, the Republic of Ireland and, “to some extent, the US and Canada” for taking active roles in stamping out corruption, “but there are still gaps”.
The report makes a series of recommendations for agencies. Among these are actively monitoring and responding to suspicions of misconduct and arranging site visits at short notice to counter potential gaming of the quality assurance or accreditation process. Other recommendations for agencies include taking the lead in advocating for legislation to counter threats from diploma mills, accreditation mills and contract cheating companies and also collaborating with local and international bodies.
Professor Glendinning added that tackling the problem was also a task for governments and policymakers because “everyone has a role in helping these bodies to do better”.
In some countries, however, quality bodies must navigate a complicated environment. The report found numerous examples of political interference that threatens the autonomy of higher education institutions in several countries, such as Australia, Brazil, Hungary, Poland, Russia, Turkey and the US. Examples included governments intervening in institutional decisions, banning subjects from the curriculum, imprisoning academics who disagree with the prevailing political climate and overriding research funding decisions, complicating the issue for quality bodies.
The report warns that “without effective oversight and accountability, covering all aspects of an educational system, there is no way of knowing whether learning and teaching is effective, whether research has been conducted rigorously and ethically, and whether academic qualifications of results from research can be trusted”.