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Facing up to the C word – Corruption in higher education

10 MAR 2014

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By definition, corruption is any type of deviation from an ideal. Ideals, as well as ideas, are core business for higher education. So when we fall short it matters.

Reputation is becoming ever more important to universities, who keenly watch how they and their peers perform in lists such asTimes Higher Education’s World Reputation Rankings.

Universities strive to behave well: to be, as former Harvard President Derek Bok put it, “ethical beacons” in their communities. However, they can, and do fall below this high standard in big, middling and smaller ways.

Corruption proper

All around the world, there is evidence that universities can behave badly in big ways.

These are often connected with a wider context – especially political – that is demonstrably corrupt. Examples are complicity with ethnic cleansing, religious and other forms of discrimination, and promotion of partisan political priorities and policies.

In many circumstances, those responsible inside the university plead force majeure. An example would be Malaysia’s New Economic Policy, or NEP, which has privileged ethnic Malay over Chinese and other entrants since 1971.

Institutions can find it hard to maintain their ethical compass in the face of pressures relating to funding, both public and private.

There are also other pressures on participation – not only who gets in as a student but also who gets the jobs – and issues around the ‘right people’, including dominant ethnic and-or economic groups.

As Michael Daxner and others have argued, it seems that universities operate more ethically when they are at some distance from the state but in tune with civil society.

Scholarly integrity

In an intermediate zone are all sorts of questions about scholarly integrity.

The siren call of business sponsorship operates here. A recent spotlight is on medical academics putting their names to articlesghost-written by drug companies.

Another concern centres on fund-raising. When there is money on the table – or even the whiff of money around the corner – institutions can lose their ability to make sound collective judgements.

A recent example is the treatment by the London School of Economics of the doctoral candidacy of Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, son of the deposed Libyan leader.

Several elements came together here: domestic political pressure, the prospect (and the delivery) of lucrative contracts, the use by a high-profile student of external consultants in the preparation of a thesis, and concerns about the standards set in a doctoral examination.

An increasingly sensitive area is marketing and the promotion of both institutions and courses, where the UK sector is just waitingfor a high-profile ‘mis-selling’ case to be brought.

Meanwhile, there are two other especially hot areas of concern. The first is the intensification of institutional rivalry about research, not least because of the concentration of competitive funding in most established systems.

‘Research integrity’ is increasingly monitored and assessed by national and international bodies. There is early evidence that attention and adherence to the standards set by these bodies is correlated both with positive outcomes and with reputation.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the globe there is concern that progress in Chinese university research – the recipient of huge swathes of public investment – is being slowed up by patronage and scientific misconduct.

The second current area of concern is the claimed collapse of student authorship standards in the face of the internet. Plagiarism now has a technical face, and the fear is that the teaching (and assessing) community will always be behind the game.

We must, however, put student lapses into a context where their elders and betters might be said to behave just as badly. Take the delicate interface between graduate (or research) student and supervisor.

Here there is not only evidence of bullying, broken promises, dashed expectations, power games, sexual exploitation, and a special form of intergenerational tension, but also a growing casebook of simple theft.


Read full article: University World News