From inception to innovation: A two-decade journey in battling corruption in education

30 October 2023


Subhartha Sarkar/

In October 2003, the United Nations Convention against Corruption came into force, marking a pivotal moment in the global fight against corruption. Two years earlier, the UNESCO Institute for Educational Planning (IIEP-UNESCO) had already begun exploring how corruption can imperil the goal of providing education for all.

"When we started, no one thought we could even talk about corruption,” reflected Jacques Hallak, a former IIEP Director looking back on IIEP’s 60-year history.

The topic was still somewhat unconventional, but there was growing recognition of how corruption harms educational quality, increases costs, and reduces efficiency.

Corruption in education is a sensitive issue and country-level statistics are scarce. Comparative data on corruption in education is available on IIEP’s ETICO platform

Pioneering ethics and corruption in education 

To tackle the widespread threat of corruption, IIEP convened a landmark workshop in November 2001, uniting representatives from organizations like the OECD, World Bank, and Transparency International to launch its first research programme on ethics and corruption in education. 

From the outset, IIEP emphasized that quality education hinges on eradicating corruption, advocating that accountability, governance, and transparency should be integral to planning and management. Today, this stance remains a cornerstone of IIEP's support to educational systems worldwide.

Over the years, IIEP has produced influential publications, hosted high-level policy forums, and trained over 3,000 individuals globally in implementing anti-corruption measures in education.

In 2003, IIEP initiated a capacity-building programme in partnership with the Open Society Foundations to empower nations in implementing stringent anti-corruption measures, which covered countries from the Balkans, Central and Eastern Europe as well as Central Asia. The same year, an international seminar in Guanajuato, Mexico, discussed strategies to enhance transparency and accountability in education, bringing together high-level academics and ministers of education.

Generating new evidence, sharing knowledge 

In 2007, IIEP published Corrupt Schools, Corrupt Universities: what can be done, advocating for clear regulations, transparent procedures, public access to information, and strong leadership to combat corruption in educational institutions. Authored by Jacques Hallak and Muriel Poisson, the book would go on to be published in six languages. 

Two years later, IIEP released Guidelines for the design and effective use of teacher codes of conduct,  offering comprehensive support for their creation, application and monitoring and leading to technical assistance work including in Lao PDR. Today, these codes can also be found on a global map on IIEP’s ETICO website, which provides resources, tools, and blogs on ethics and corruption.

A year before the Sustainable Development Goals, IIEP conducted a comparative study of pro-poor educational incentives – such as school grants or scholarships – to determine which ones were the most – and least – effective in reaching their intended beneficiaries. 

In 2015, IIEP hosted a Policy Forum on higher education integrity, revealing integrity risks at the higher education level, highlighting innovative approaches to improve ethics and reduce opportunities for fraud and leading to calls for an international coalition on higher education integrity. 

Tailored country support to stamp out corruption 

Over the years, IIEP has provided direct technical support to countries – such as Serbia, Kosovo*, Ukraine, Georgia, and Guinea – to assess corruption risks systematically and comprehensively and provide tailored policy recommendations, at the demand of countries. 

Depending on the context, these assessments have either been global or specifically focused on a sub-sector, such as pre-school, higher education, or technical and vocational training (TVET).  IIEP has also strengthened the capacity of national teams to develop and implement public expenditure tracking surveys to trace funding flows and reduce leakages. Countries including South Africa, Burkina Faso, Cambodia, Ghana, and Uganda have all benefited from this work. 

Opportunities for citizens and civil society 

More recently, IIEP’s efforts have focused on the role of citizens in holding authorities accountable. In 2018, IIEP launched a study on the power of open school data to promote citizen control over resources, including seven steps to design and implement such a programme. 

This also laid the foundation for a global exploration of innovations in open government models and helped shape a 2023 IIEP capacity development programme with Education Out Loud (an initiative of the Global Partnership for Education) to support civil society actors in implementing tools to curb corruption. 

Today, IIEP remains dedicated to eradicating corruption in education. On the horizon, this will include a global investigation on how to harness new digital technologies, such as blockchain and artificial intelligence, and big data to enhance transparency and accountability in educational planning and management.

* All references to Kosovo are made in the context of UN Security Council Resolution 1244 (1999).