Overcoming corruption and academic fraud in higher education


  By Muriel Poisson, IIEP-UNESCO


Fighting corruption in higher education has taken on new urgency – for never before has the crucial role of higher education in building sustainable, prosperous societies been so clear.

Investigations into entrance exam fraud in Colombia, former high-level government officials forced to step down in Japan after revelations that they illegally obtained post-retirement university posts, a crackdown on widespread cheating in Kenya, charges brought against a Pakistani company accused of defrauding tens of thousands of students in the US by selling them below-standard coursework, plans to name and shame academic qualification fraudsters in South Africa, and a national PhD registry set up in Malaysia to curb the production and usage of fraudulent academic titles by individuals and institutions – this range of examples illustrate the magnitude of corruption and fraudulent practices in higher education worldwide, as well as the various attempts to clean up the sector.

Creating incentives to fight corruption and academic fraud is not an easy task, particularly in a context where the increased autonomy given to universities has not always been counterbalanced by appropriate accountability mechanisms; and where capacities to regulate and control corruption and fraud also remain limited. 

Nevertheless, the pressing need to improve higher education integrity is likely to grow over the coming years. Stakeholders are better positioned today to measure the harmful effects of loss of resources and credibility caused by fraudulent practices. Those with vested interests include funders concerned with the efficient use of shrinking resources, higher education institutions (HEIs) needing to maintain trust in the diplomas that they deliver, employers who have to rely on the validity of higher education credentials, and individuals who can be easily tarnished by allegations of corruption or fraud that can spread more and more easily via the Internet

Examples of effective actions to prevent corruption and enhance integrity in higher education were recently outlined by the Advisory Statement published by IIEP and CHEA*. It includes, but is not limited to, imposing sanctions on government officials and HEI staff who present phony qualifications; putting appeals processes in place for academic and administrative decisions; developing international security standards for documents relating to higher education credentials; excluding individuals in conflict of interest as members of quality assurance panels; monitoring the behavior of recruitment agents for observance of HEI’s requirements and the law; including higher education in consumer protection legislation on marketing and advertising; and passing legislation to protect whistle-blowers. 

Testimonies from countries such as Morocco, Lithuania, or the UK that have tested some of these approaches are featured on IIEP’s ETICO Platform of resources.  To move ahead, further reflection and exchange is needed on how integrity indicators can be included in traditional diagnoses of the higher education sector; on how governments and HEIs can design charts of ethics and codes of conduct and adapt the norms and procedures that they use to manage the sector; on how to review quality assurance standards and mechanisms to ensure that they better integrate integrity concerns; and finally on how to encourage stronger public access to information. This is a must to enable the entire higher education community to take further action.


* IIEP; CHEA/CIQG. 2016. Advisory Statement for Effective International Practice. Combatting Corruption and Enhancing Integrity: A Contemporary Challenge for the Quality and Credibility of Higher Education. 


Visit the ETICO Platform of resources on ethics and corruption in education.


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