Cheating in education: a global overview

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In the most developed Countries (OECD Countries), 60% of young people enrolled into a University or a research institution in the last decades and this percentage is rising in the growing countries from 15% to 30%, on the average. This means that we are into the transitional stage of the higher education systems, from elite to mass ones: larger numbers mean more money and increasing possibilities to perform illegal behaviors. On 1st October, the “Global Corruption Report: Education” has been released by Transparency International (TI), a non-governmental organization based in Germany, which monitors worldwide corruption trends. The Report describes a situation which is far more wide and complex than people might imagine: often seen as a partial problem, corruption in Universities and research institutions is reaching alarming levels.

Usually people think that there are only three ways to corrupt in the higher education sector: the classic bribe, sexual favors or general abuse of power and illegal corporate funding. This last one is already a deeply debated problem in science. According to the IT Report, “since the 1980s there has been a rapid increase in the corporate funding of university research. Across universities in the OECD countries, between 1981 and 2003 the share of government-funded academic research decreased on average by 10%, while the proportion of business sector financing doubled. Corporate funding remains small in absolute terms, at about 6% of total research funding, but its rapid growth is deepening links between industry and university-based researchers”. Corporate funding can provide to academic research the money that governments are no longer able to give, but the bad influence that they can exert is well documented across a variety of academic disciplines.

Nevertheless, the ways to corrupt are absolutely not three at all, as the TI Report clearly states: financial frauds pervade high education systems from the enrollment of students to scientific research. First of all, the growing phenomenon of “degree mills”, as fake Universities are called. In  2007, Sonny Licciardello, a dog, obtained a medical degree in Australia – and he's not alone. As degree mills have to be considered as just a pure fraud, other rising trends are double-edged blades. This is the case of cross-border education. The number of foreign students has tripled in thirty years, reaching 3.7 million in 2009. Cross-border education has many positive aspects, mainly that students from developing Countries can reach the best education in OECD Countries. But this trend can hide severe risks of corruption, too: during the process of recognition of the foreign degrees, by paying foreign institution recruiters or in providing accommodations for foreign students.

Yet, corruption can affect even the most prestigious Countries: for years Germany has been shocked by many academic scandals dealing with cheating in doctoral degree – that is an indirect form of corruption. According to TI Report, “estimates suggest that about 600 out of the approximately 25,000 people a year who receive a doctoral degree in Germany have used undue means”. Cheating is realized by purchasing fake degree abroad or paying “consultant” to do students work or plagiarizing part of the doctoral thesis. Anyway, corruption doesn't stop at the doctoral level. Once it affects the academic career, corruption can have more serious effects, by “driving out good academics, eroding the quality of education and research, and chipping away at the reputation of the institutions”, as the TI Reports says. This is particularly true when dealing with a “form” of academic career, based on the so-called “familism”. Familism, which means promoting relatives regardless of their academic merits, is widely known for being one of the major problem of higher education system in Italy, even though it is a global problem.

Along with familism, another corruption risk dealing with meritocracy is linked with competition between scientists in publishing on peer-reviewed journals, which leads some scientists to endorse illegal methods to be published. According to World Bank, there are about 8.5 million researchers in the World. This means a ruthless competition in research – a situation brilliantly described as “publish or perish”. These methods are basically three: fabrication (making up data that do not exist), falsification (changing data) or plagiarism in proposing, performing or reviewing research, or in reporting research results. TI reports a 2002 survey of US scientists that found that 1.7 per cent had, by their own admission, engaged in one of these three types of misconducts within the previous three years. This means that 6 out of 1,000 researchers engages in these methods every year in the US, diverting financial resources from those who deserve them – another indirect form of corruption.

But the Report goes further. TI has developed an index, the Global Corruption Barometer, which is based on how users feel an institution to be affected or heavily affected by corruption. Knowing this is very important as “in some instances, corruption has invaded whole systems of higher education. Where this has occurred, corruption has reduced the economic rate of return on higher education investment by public institutions and individual students alike. Efforts to homogenize regional systems, such as the Bologna Process, may have to come to a halt as a result of corruption”, as TI Report says. Here the numbers. On average, 15% of the European respondents say they feel the education system to be corrupt or extremely corrupt (in particular, 11% in Spain, 16% in France, 18% in UK, 19% in Germany). Italy (29%) is ranked out of the average European Countries but in line with Israel (23%) and South Korea (30%) and US (34%). Then come the new fast-growing countries, the so-called Brics: Brazil (33%), Russia (72%, one of the highest percentage), India (61%) and South Africa (32%) - China is not reported. A particularly bad mention must be given to Japan, where 55% say that the education system is corrupted. 

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