- Corruption of some form — including unethical, inappropriate and even illegal practices — touches higher education in every part of the world, according to a new study from the Council for Higher Education Accreditation's International Quality Group (CHEA/CIQG).
- CHEA/CIQG surveyed nearly 70 accreditation and quality assurance bodies (AQABs) about how they are responding to corruption (defined as intentional misconduct) in the regulatory process, teaching, student admissions and recruitment, assessment, credentials, and research and publication. Topics ranged from bribery — for example, to affect admissions, regulatory decisions or promotion — to political interference in governance and misleading advertising.
- CHEA/CIQG said AQABs are working with local, national and international agencies to reduce corruption. The organization also noted the importance of working with journalists and nongovernmental organizations to bring issues to light while also acknowledging that it can be difficult for those tasked with quality assurance to "swim against the tide" when trying to eradicate corruption.
Issues with corruption varied around the world, but no geographical area was immune to it, according to CHEA/CIQG's study. The recent alleged admissions bribery scandal lighting up the higher ed world should make clear, if it wasn't already, that the U.S. can be vulnerable to even the boldest forms of corruption.
While corruption was widely present, quality assurance groups were more aware of specific types of corruption in some countries — such as Russia, Nigeria, India and those in the Western Balkans — than in more developed countries, according to the report.
And some problems were more prevalent around the world than others. For example, with regulation, 21 of surveyed AQABs cited at least minor concerns around political or commercial interference with decisions. That's compared to 13 that had at least minor concerns around bribery to influence decisions. Twenty-four organizations, including in North America, cited concerns around misleading recruitment advertising. Issues with plagiarism and cheating were also frequently cited as concerns.
In its literature review, the study pointed to the U.S. when examining examples of political interference that could threaten the autonomy of higher ed institutions. Specifically, it included a news story about President Donald Trump threatening to defund the University of California, Berkeley, after there were on-campus protests of a writer for the far-right news website Breitbart. CHEA/CIQG also cited, as examples of corruption in the U.S., reports of misused university property, inappropriately changed grades and diploma mills.
Corruption carries with it systematic risks. In its study, CHEA/CIQG noted, "Corruption in its many forms is a great threat to the integrity of education and research, not least because it undermines the trust placed in the educational process, devalues academic qualifications and forces the outcomes of research to be questioned."
The recent bribery scandal in the U.S. helps to illuminate that problem. While limited to a handful of elite colleges and a few dozen families who allegedly were willing to buy admissions spots for their children through a scheme that involved cheating on standardized tests and faking athletic profiles to land spots on coaches' recruitment lists, it exposed perennial inequities in the U.S. higher ed system and its vulnerability to manipulation and misconduct.
Athletics recruitment, standardized testing and the influence of donations have all been focal points in debates stirred by the scandal. On the latter topic, admissions consultants say quid pro quo donations-for-admissions arrangements are typically shunned by universities, which is not to say donations play no role in recruitment. A recent lawsuit against Harvard University exposed how development cases are far more likely to land seats at the Ivy League institution.
In the wake of the bribery scandal, crisis-management experts suggest colleges review their internal controls for weaknesses in the admissions process and potentially set up anonymous hotlines, along with other measures to address inequity and reputational risks.