When pay drops, ethical standards may follow

September 1, 2006

Corruption in academe becomes commonplace when staff are not paid a living wage, argues Philip Altbach

The Egyptian Gazette was stark in its condemnation. "University professors in Egypt have been accused of violating their code of ethics by greedily demanding large sums of money from their students," it stated. Academics had, apparently, devised an impressive range of ways to pocket students' cash. For example, they charged high prices for textbooks and lecture notes that were mandatory and on which exams were based. And they changed the texts each year to prevent their resale.

Faced with overcrowded lectures students were also forced to pay extra fees "to attend off-campus classes offered by professors - where the real course content is provided", the Egyptian Gazette said. These private tutoring sessions were sometimes held in theatres or even conference rooms in five-star hotels rented specially for the purpose. One dean described private tutoring as an "infectious disease that is gnawing away at the flesh of society".

In their defence, academics interviewed for the article pointed out that they could not live on their salaries, even though they had recently been increased. An assistant professor in an Egyptian public university earns about $260 (£137) a month - hardly enough to support a family. They have to turn to practices such as private tutoring just to make ends meet.

If institutions cannot offer academics an adequate source of income and career stability, all manner of problems will ensue. Corruption is at the top of the list and, as the Egyptian case illustrates, the inevitable consequences can be severe.

Private tutoring is a problem in many parts of the world. It is endemic in South Asia, where marginal staff remuneration, stiff competition in entrance exams in the most selective institutions, poor classroom instruction and the use of English as the medium of instruction in many schools despite many students lacking fluency create a potent environment for practices that may be on the shady side.

While little in-depth research has been conducted on academic corruption, news media the world over are replete with stories exposing such conduct. The concern is with those practices that stray from essential academic ethics. Professors in some countries routinely demand bribes to help with admissions, to raise exam grades or to permit student cheating. Bribes may also secure academic appointments or promotions. Decisions about the purchase of equipment are sometimes influenced by payoffs. Academics supplement inadequate salaries through corrupt practices of many kinds. Most of the time there is a direct relationship between such hanky-panky and the lack of a stable and adequate income.

It is difficult to pinpoint the causes of academic corruption. In some places, ingrained corrupt practices at all levels of society influence universities, and poor remuneration may be part of a larger problem. Universities cannot be insulated from societal corruption. For example, the subculture of centralised exams to determine who wins university places and posts or public and private-sector jobs leads to all kinds of corrupt practices, from selling answers to lax invigilation. Students have been known to demand the "right" to copy answers because exam malpractices are so widespread.

In most instances, universities are not corrupt institutions. They have strong traditions of meritocracy and shared academic values. But they cannot survive systematic starvation without ethics being damaged. Providing a living wage for the academic profession and maintaining the core idea of the academic career are prerequisites for an ethical academic culture.

Corruption does not take place without a reason. When lecturers and professors do not receive an inadequate income, all sorts of things happen. One result is the practice of asking academics to become entrepreneurs - by teaching profit-making parallel programmes, offering consultancy services, creating private companies or focusing on contract research. Academic corruption is another - forcing professors to enhance their incomes "by any means necessary" but also by jettisoning the traditional values and orientations of the university.

A healthy academic institution is an organic whole that requires adequate financial support, rigorous enforcement of traditional academic values and, at its core, an academic profession committed to these values. Without this, corruption is likely to flourish and academic quality will suffer.

Philip G. Altbach is Monan professor of higher education and director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College.

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