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Manifestations of corruption in education


Corruption is a complex phenomenon, without a uniform definition. An overview of the different forms and definitions of corruption, as well as its harmful effects across the globe, is available in Module 1 of the E4J University Module Series on Anti-Corruption. For present purposes, it should be noted that the United Nations Convention against Corruption (UNCAC) refrains from providing one overarching definition of "corruption". Rather, it defines various acts of corruption and classifies them as criminal offences, such as bribery and embezzlement (in both the public and private sectors); trading in influence; abuse of functions; and illicit enrichment (UNCAC arts. 15-22). With 187 States parties (as of April 2020), UNCAC has attracted nearly universal adherence, and the different acts of corruption as defined by the Convention can be considered internationally accepted. Module 4 and Module 5 of the E4J University Module Series on Anti-Corruption include more detailed discussions on how these various acts of corruption manifest in the public and private sectors, respectively.

In education systems, bribery and embezzlement have been described as the most common acts of corruption. Bribery in education involves money or non-monetary advantages, for example, when a lecturer pays a member(s) of the selection committee of a university for being recruited over other, more qualified applicants or when a professor approves a flawed dissertation because the student's father, a car dealer, provides the professor with a brand new vehicle. Embezzlement could be the use of government money, which was meant to upgrade the school's library, for a vacation for a school principal and his or her family. One case of embezzlement made famous by Reinikka and Svensson (2004) is the theft of funds intended for non-wage expenditure in Ugandan schools. Only 13 per cent of the disbursed grants reached the schools. For a further discussion and additional examples of corruption in education, see Hallak and Poisson (2007, pp. 57-58).

The related crimes of fraud and extortion have also been identified as common in education (Amundsen, 2000). Fraud involves some kind of trickery intended to generate an economic gain (see, e.g., Merriam-Webster). An example of fraud in the area of education is the existence of "diploma mills", which sell fake degrees over the Internet. If a university or another education institution produces and sells fake degrees, this could constitute the offence of abuse of functions under article 19 of UNCAC (at least in relation to public institutions). Extortion is the use of coercion, violence or threats to extract something from another person (this definition is discussed in more detail in Module 4 of the E4J University Modules Series on Organized Crime). An educator demanding sexual favours or non-required fees from students or their parents, so that the students can receive better grades or their degrees, are examples of extortion in the education field. When the extortion has a sexual nature, it is sometimes called sexual extortion or sextortion, as explained in Module 8 of the E4J University Module Series on Anti-Corruption.

Cases where the educator's request for sexual favours is non-coercive, or where sexual favours are offered by the student in exchange for a certain grade or degree, could constitute bribery or abuse of functions, and are sometimes called sexual corruption. When UNCAC requests States parties to criminalize bribery, abuse of functions and other forms of corruption, the Convention refers to the benefits involved in the corrupt transaction as "undue advantage". Undue advantage is intended to apply as broadly as possible, including in cases where intangible items or non-pecuniary benefits (such as sexual favours) are offered insofar as they create or may create a sense of obligation among the involved parties. See further discussion in Module 8 of the E4J University Module Series on Anti-Corruption.

Additional integrity breaches in the education sector, that in some contexts are considered corruption, include plagiarism and educator absenteeism (TI, 2013). There are also cases of corruption in the administration of schools, particularly in the areas of procurement, finance and human resources.

To assess the prevalence of various corrupt acts in education, it is useful to identify the institutional level of occurrence (e.g. ministry, municipality, school), the level of education where it occurs (e.g. primary, secondary, tertiary), the actors involved, and the nature of the exchange (Hallak and Poisson, 2007, pp. 60-61):

  • The level of occurrence: Corruption can take place at the level of the ministry of education, government department, region, district, school or classroom. Each level comes with specific opportunities for corruption, and requires different solutions and responses. For example, dealing with corrupt high school teachers requires measures that are different from those required for dealing with corruption in the Ministry.
  • The level of education: Corruption may take different forms depending on whether it takes place at the primary, secondary or tertiary education levels. For example, educators exerting pressure on parents (or vice versa) to accept a tutor for their children is more likely to occur at earlier educational stages, while admissions corruption is more likely to occur at later stages of the academic career.
  • The actors: Actors involved in corrupt practices could be administrators, private companies supplying goods to the school, faculty, students or student families.
  • The nature of the exchange: The exchange can be initiated by the beneficiaries of education or by the suppliers of education.

There are different ways to assess corruption risks and risk factors related to the above categories. Kirya (2019), for example, suggests political economy analysis, power and influence analysis, corruption risk assessments, system mapping, and the Integrity of Education Systems (INTES) methodology as reliable approaches that could inform the development of effective anti-corruption strategies and tools to address corruption problems in the education sector. All these approaches are discussed in detail in this U4 report from 2019.

It should be stressed that corruption in education occurs in both developed and developing countries. The ever-diminishing education budgets and the increased reliance on rankings and competition for grants have encouraged corner-cutting to the detriment of education quality even in the largest market-based education systems, such as those of the United States and the United Kingdom. For example, a prevalent act of corruption in education in the United States is the deliberate manipulation of test scores in schools (Jacob and Levitt, 2003). Corruption in cross-border education, including buying fake accreditations and bribing agencies for student recruitment, also involve developed countries (Vincent-Lancrin, 2013). An underlying principle common to all education systems is that the classroom should be a safe space where educators and students can discuss difficult subjects openly. This is seriously threatened by corruption.

Before embarking on a discussion on the causes and impacts of corruption and the responses to addressing corruption in education, it is worth clarifying the distinction between low quality education and corruption in education. The distinction is critical to enable the choice of appropriate corrective measures. Low quality education may stem from unacceptable behaviour by school and university educators brought about by causes other than the abuse of power for private gain. If a university has relatively few books in the library because it cannot afford an adequate collection, the lack of books will have a negative impact on students' education. In this case it is not corruption that has brought about the lack of books. To correct the deficiency, the library must be provided with more resources. However, if an educator steals books from the library, then the crime of theft has been committed and appropriate penalties must be imposed on the educator, who should also be required to return or replace the books (see relevant discussion in this article). By the same token, if the lack of books is the consequence of an administrator siphoning off library funds for his or her own benefit, or an educator paying an administrator to erase the theft of books without taking appropriate action, then these examples would constitute corruption.

Next: Cost of corruption in education
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