Tuesday, March 04, 2008

The Corrupters

Few books are as candid in their titling, nor as straightforward in their actual delivery. Many are grandiosely titled, almost as if the hype makes the book more important than they actually are. Even fewer lack the objectivity required to force home practical suggestions.

Thank God, then, for “Corrupt Schools, Corrupt Universities: What can be done?” Commissioned by the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) and the International Institute for Education Planning, it is a six year odyssey that does exactly what it says on the tin. It looks at how money in education has been spent, and whether they trickle down accordingly to those for whom its meant for: the children.

I want to put corruption on the agenda in a positive way,” said Jacques Hallak, one of the two authors of the report, “not to point the fingers but not to sweep it under the carpet either. The book offers constructive help to fight this perennial problem.”

Corruption influences both access and quality in education,” he continues, “because it affects the availability and quality of educational goods and services. At the same time, corruption in the education sector contradicts one of the major purposes of education, namely, to transmit values and promote principled behaviour.”

Definition wise, corruption in the education sector is “the systematic use of public office for private benefit, whose impact is significant on the availability and quality of educational goods and services, and, as a consequence on access, quality or equity in education.” What this means is more than the distortion of marks or the pocketing of government subsidies for personal benefits.

In fact, it covers almost every breadth of the spectrum: finance, allowance allocation, construction of schools, maintenance and repairs, equipment distribution, writing of textbooks, teacher appointments, teacher behaviours, examinations...the list goes on and on. If corruption is to be found where humans are, then you'll find it in every nook and corner of the education sector.

Neither is it limited to countries with backwater African shacks as schools, either. “Six years of research and the experience of over 60 countries have shown that no country has a monopoly non corruption in education,” said the co-author, Muriel Poisson. “The media have uncovered scandals everywhere, from countries with poor governance and low paid staff to affluent Western democracies.”

One such democracy is Australia, recently ranked the 11th most transparent country in the world by Transparency International. With the Australian education sector worth around AUS$2 billion, little wonder, then, that they feel the need to cover up plagiarism cases (see box).

The book itself is a comprehensive one, a mammoth 300 page tome that gets to the roots of its problems, instead of just sugarcoating the top. One of the main problems issues identified in the book is that of private tuition. In Mauritius, at least, parents and students see it as a necessary step forward, in order to gain a march on the competition. Knowing this, teachers put in less and less effort into teaching the pupils in the classroom themselves. Over time, this became an indictment of sorts against the underprivileged kids, those who are unable to pay for the tuition in their own time. And why isn't it changed now? Cos the teachers conducting the tuition gets to take home extra unpaid pay, that is.

Then there are loopholes in the examination systems themselves. Good things come to those who wait, and also those who have the money: Italians can receive oral exam questions in advance for up $3,000, while in China, you can hire people to sit exams for you, with fees ranging from US$200 to US$1,200.

It's not all doom and gloom, however. The book is also littered with examples and suggestions as to how corruption can be tackled. One only need to look at Uganda to know that it can be done. “A decade ago in Uganda, only 13 percent of the annual grant per student actually made it to the schools,” said Professor Hallak. “Today, the figure is around 85 percent, thanks to campaigns that informed local communities where the money was actually going.”

At the same time, however, the authors also note that the most important thing to consider when it comes to considering the possible solutions for corruption in education, the different factors in the different countries. What worked in Albania may not work in Argentina, for example.

Of course, these are just some of the issues and solutions highlighted in the book. Ultimately, it serves as a guide for us. It not only tells us of the corruption deeds of yesteryears, but in remembering, it helps us to remember that it can also be fought. Just as corruption is possible wherever human beings are, the solution also lies in the human beings themselves. For this to take place, it has to be a collective effort.

Old habits do not die overnight,” said the president of Lithuania, Valdas Adamkus, whose country is active in their efforts to reduce education corruption. “We have to create laws, which have to be brought into practice through the institutions. This will probably take a decade, but when the new generation is brought up and used to the new concepts, this will be part of their personality.”

*An published article written for Education Quarterly mid 2007.

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