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Fighting corruption in education


The importance of fighting corruption in education

While corruption in general has received a great deal of attention from the media and researchers in the past decades, corruption in education is underresearched. This is, however, beginning to change with a growing number of studies focusing on this area (see e.g. Huss and Keudel, 2020). Executives in the education sector may have avoided scrutiny for fear that a tarnished reputation would diminish the sector's resources (Poisson, 2010, p. 1). However, given the detrimental effects of corruption, it is of paramount importance to recognize and address corruption in education. Below are a number of core arguments which support the combating of corruption in education. These arguments are universal and relevant to learning environments in both developed and developing countries.

Firstly, the education sector shapes individuals from early life until adulthood, with effects felt at a personal level in terms of lifetime earnings, health, family life and subjective well-being, and at a societal level in terms of the country's stock of skills which feed into its economic growth, income distribution and intergenerational mobility (Burgess, 2016). Corruption nullifies the gains from education at both levels, and it creates net losses when skills and jobs are mismatched.

Secondly, corruption in education is targeted particularly at vulnerable individuals. Students, as well as parents who want the best for their children, are thwarted in their ambitions. This may, for example, lead to parents being willing to pay a fee demanded by a school administrator to secure a place for their child at school, or to pay a fee demanded by an educator to ensure a favourable report card for their child. Another example is sexual exploitation of students by educators in situations where students or parents are too poor to pay in the conventional way. Paying by means of sexual favours and other acts of corruption in the educational environment is of deep ethical concern because this perverts the relationship between educators and students entrusted to their care (Poisson, 2010).

Thirdly, corruption in education replaces good values and morals with a cynical view of the world when young and highly impressionable students learn that fighting corruption does not pay off - but siding with it might. Corruption has "disastrous consequences" when it interferes with the "development of attitudes and values related to citizenship and justice" (Poisson, 2010, p. 11). If citizens do not trust the education system to be fair and impartial, then all senior positions, whether in business, science or politics, are perceived to have been gained through privilege rather than achievement. This erodes the credibility of and trust in educational institutions, creates frustration and disengagement, and damages aspirations and social cohesion that are necessary for all successful societies (Altbach, 2015; Heyneman, 2004, p. 638).

Fourthly, education is key to sustainable development, as recognized by Goal 4 of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). By undermining the quality of education and access to it, corruption significantly hampers the attainment of the SDGs.

Fifthly, high quality and accessible education empowers societies and individuals, and is thus one of the most effective channels for advancing a productive and moral society. Corruption negates all that.

Detecting corruption in education

Before we can fight corruption we must be able to detect and uncover it. A general discussion on detecting corruption is available in Module 6 of the E4J University Module Series on Anti-Corruption. Several tools for preventing and detecting corruption have been adapted for the education sector: physical audits of the education processes, public expenditure tracking surveys, and drawing comparisons between reported and actual performance. These are discussed below:

  • Physical audits of education processes. This involves spot checks at education facilities to verify that managers and educators are carrying out their duties. This approach was, for instance, used to gauge and reduce teacher absenteeism in India, where staff absence from duty had spiralled out of control (Duflo, Hanna and Ryan, 2012).
  • Public expenditure tracking surveys (PETS): These were originally developed in developing countries where budget data in public institutions were neither systematically recorded nor reliable. These surveys are used for collecting detailed data from different government tiers and frontline service providers on financial transfers and accountability mechanisms. The surveys allow the tracking of financial flows from the donor or government all the way to the intended beneficiary. Thus, they can identify precisely at which tiers the leaks occur (by detecting information asymmetries) and also clarify any misunderstandings between institutions operating these transfers. PETS have been used particularly in the health care and education services, but they are applicable to other services as well. The first country to carry out PETS was Uganda in 1996 (a case closely studied by Reinikka and Svensson, 2004), followed by other countries such as Tanzania, Ghana and Honduras.
  • Indirect measures based on differences between reported and actual performance (cross-checking). These include innovative methods for assessing actual education outcomes and contrasting them with reported outcomes. For instance, Lucifora and Tonello (2014) compared national test outcomes in Italian schools and classes in two environments: on the one hand where the exam was invigilated by an external inspector and there were no opportunities for cheating, and on the other hand where the exam was invigilated by a teacher. Borcan, Lindahl and Mitrut (2017) compared national test scores in Romanian schools with CCTV (closed circuit television) surveillance and those without video surveillance to uncover a large gap of up to 20 per cent between stated and actual pass rates.

This list of tools is by no means exhaustive. Surveys with questions about experiences  and reports of corruption are also commonly used.

Anti-corruption strategies in education

The most appropriate anti-corruption strategy and its best application in a particular environment is a complex matter, because it depends on the functioning of the rule enforcement system and how entrenched corruption norms are. There are also potentially harmful unintended effects. In its 2011 report on corruption in the education sector, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) observed that there are four main categories of tools used to combat corruption:

  • Rule of law (control and sanction)
  • Public administration and systems (corruption prevention)
  • Transparency and accountability (duty bearers and rights holders, non-state
  • actors, information, awareness)
  • Capacity development (individual, organizational and institutional capacity-building)

Applying this to the education sector, Poisson (2010) identified five factors necessary to prevent corruption, some which overlap with the suggestions of UNDP:

  • Transparency of standards and procedure
  • Capacity-building and management automation
  • Outsourcing of management and verification processes
  • Codes of conduct for educators
  • Access to information

To the instruments noted above, Heyneman (2004, p. 645) added: "Sanctions required to demote or punish when infractions occur".

Anti-corruption strategies can be informed by the Becker-Stigler model of crime (see the section on "Causes of corruption in education"), and could place emphasis on increasing the cost of violations, through more severe punishments for educators, staff and students, and increasing the probability of violations being detected, e.g. by higher transparency in hiring, firing, accreditation processes and exam protocols. These two components are best applied together, as it makes little difference if punishments are tough, but never applied; or if violations are known, but only mildly sanctioned or not at all. This somewhat simple accounting, however, omits an all-important part of what drives corrupt behaviour: socialization, norms, peer effects and beliefs about what others might do in a situation susceptible to corruption. These behavioural mechanisms have been underresearched and should be examined in each individual context and embedded in anti-corruption policies. 

There is a certain pessimism regarding anti-corruption efforts in education (Poisson, 2010, p. 23), but there are also success stories, and - given the new focus on corruption in the education sector - the chances of improvement have increased considerably. A few examples of success stories include:

  • Transparency of standards and procedures: The city of Bogotá in Colombia published specific descriptions of staffing procedures, postings and transfer standards, which "boosted school enrolments by more than one third, with only a limited number of extra teachers taken on due to the gains in efficiency that were made" (Poisson, 2010, p. 9).
  • Monitoring combined with incentives or punishment: In India, increased teacher salaries and monitoring of attendance with tamper-proof cameras reduced teacher absenteeism (Duflo, Hanna and Ryan, 2012). In Romania, CCTV cameras were introduced in national exams in 2011 together with substantially tougher punishments for teachers and students, whereafter the national pass rate fell from close to 80 per cent in 2009, to 41 per cent in 2012 (Borcan, Lindahl and Mitrut, 2017).
  • Capacity-building and management automation: In Lebanon, moving exam administration to be handled by computers and using automation regarding matters such as test and staff selection, placing exam candidates in examination rooms, test marking and results processing allowed the system to detect and punish those who broke the rules (Poisson, 2010, p. 13).
  • The right to information: In Uganda, public expenditure tracking surveys (PETS) identified that on average 49 per cent of  the grant paid to primary schools were embezzled (Reinikka and Svensson, 2004).

After reviewing cases which demonstrated successful anti-corruption strategies, Hallak and Poisson (2007, p. 23) observed that "no measure taken in isolation can combat corruption effectively". Poisson (2010) highlighted three measures as particularly promising: 1) development of transparent regulation systems and standards; 2) building management capacity; and 3) fostering greater ownership of the processes by the community at large.

Any sound anti-corruption strategy in education and beyond should account for potential undesired side effects and should be complemented by measures to mitigate those effects. For example, when CCTV cameras were introduced in Romanian exam rooms, the performance of financially disadvantaged students dropped more than that of wealthy students, partly because in-class cheating was replaced by individual bribery by students who could afford it. Fisman and Golden (2017) urge decision makers to design policies with their recipients in mind: "When you install CCTVs to prevent students cheating on [ sic] exams, think like a desperate student who has not bothered to do his homework all year". For a more general discussion of anti-corruption strategies in the public and private sector, see Module 4, Module 5 and Module 13 of the E4J University Module Series on Anti-Corruption.

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