Stench of rotten fruit fills groves of academe

January 21, 2005

An apparent rise in corruption around the world is undermining all of higher education, says Philip Altbach.

The deputy prime minister of Russia recently estimated that between $2 billion (£1.06 billion) and $5 billion a year is spent on academic bribes in his country.

In Nigeria, 7,254 graduates have been stripped of degrees in a crackdown on fraud, with the head of the institution involved characterising his country's universities as rife with corruption. A probe into three private South Korean universities resulted in 68 faculty and administrators being fired for misusing funds.

If this spate of reports is any indication of the scope of the problem globally, higher education is enduring a dramatic increase in corruption.

Such unsavoury practices undermine the whole global sector's core values and erode its credibility.

After all, higher education's bedrock mission is the pursuit of knowledge and truth.

Universities worldwide have long claimed special privileges of autonomy, academic freedom and the support of society because of their devotion to the public good and their reputation for probity. They have enjoyed high social prestige for these commitments.

But if universities lose their standing, they will incur unparalleled damage.

Admissions are the focus of much corruption because access to higher education, especially to the most prestigious universities, is coveted. In Russia, the scale of the problem has prompted big reforms, with a new national university entrance test being introduced in part to tackle this.

China's competitive national admission examinations have long been highly regarded, but it has emerged that university officials demanded $12,000 from a student whose test score qualified him for entry. One Chinese critic noted: "We have been trying to marketise higher education and turn it into an industry... but whenever money is involved in anything, there will be problems."

While we have no way of knowing if the problem is more widespread now than in earlier times, it is certainly attracting more attention. Institutions have become subject to greater scrutiny as higher education's provision of social mobility gains greater recognition.

A successful career requires a degree, even if obtained fraudulently or from a "degree mill". As a result, academe gets more scrutiny - and more criticism - from the media. And it is under increased pressure to provide both the access and the certification essential for success.

Furthermore, as higher education has "marketised", it has adopted more commercial values, including a greater predilection for corruption, and has moved further away from traditional academic values.

Many new mass higher education providers - universities and commercial enterprises offering postsecondary qualifications - have only marginal connections to core academic values.

The deterioration of the idea of higher education as a "common good" has created unprecedented pressures. Worldwide, the state has withdrawn support from universities and even the most prestigious have become more concerned with the "bottom line".

Commercial considerations loom ever larger in academic affairs. Few institutions know how to ensure adequate income in this new environment.

Some have been lured into corrupt practices.

Professors and administrators faced with deteriorating salaries and working conditions have sometimes strayed. A growing number of part-time and poorly trained faculty who lack an understanding of the meaning of the traditional university as well as the means to support themselves from their academic salaries seem especially prone.

The function of some new providers, including business enterprises and some for-profit institutions, is to earn money, and they have little use for academic values. When traditional universities with inadequate management skills partner such organisations, there is a clash of cultures and an opportunity for corruption.

Another potential problem area is the internet, which constitutes an untamed frontier filled with all kinds of offerings, including the sale of worthless degrees and unregulated academic programmes.

There is great latitude here for shady practices. Corruption and related ethical problems present an unprecedented threat to higher education. The loss of its objectivity, honesty and high ethical standards would remove the central rationale for public support.

The growing number of bad apples in the barrel is threatening the entire academic enterprise.

Philip G. Altbach is professor of higher education and director of the Centre for International Higher Education at Boston College, US.

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