Learning to fly: students matter in the fight against corruption

Learning to fly: students matter in the fight against corruption

Once upon a time, studying used to be like flying to a nice destination. You would purchase a ticket, board a plane and enjoy a flight to a place different and better than the one you came from. On the way you would fly over and see things you hadn’t seen before and also earn miles that would grant you with a new and higher status. Things seem different today. The demand for seats in airplanes and in auditoriums is bigger than ever before and both sectors – higher education and air travel – are expected to continue growing for decades to come.

In the air travel business, sophisticated logistics and navigation systems ensure that the growing number of passengers can purchase the right ticket, fly safe, and arrive where they want. In comparison, the ticketing and navigation systems in higher education seem to be in need of overhaul. In too many of the countries that are in the middle of an enrolment fever, the systems of assessment and admissions for studying and for financial support were designed decades ago to determine narrowly defined academic aptitude and achievement, select the best and ignore the rest, or to promote free access at any price. Today they tend to provide misleading answers to three key questions: What do students want? Why do they study? Do they study what they want? As a consequence, many of the academic planes seem to be overloaded and can’t take off, have students on board who don’t have the right ticket or don’t know where they want to go, and pilots who are no longer certain of their final destination.

Student expectations

Purposeful or not, institutional negligence towards the management of student expectations, aptitude and motivation can be detrimental to academic integrity. If students see academic credentials only as a door opener to an otherwise difficult job-market and restrictive access policies make them chose whatever field of study they can get into, how likely is it that they will care for academic rigour and integrity? If access is not a problem, but public support is spread very thinly among a large student population and students have to work full time to sustain themselves, at the end of the day, how much time and motivation will they have to fight for transparency and participation? And if assessment is not transparent and examiners are the sole masters over questions of academic survival and access to financial support, what are the chances that students will dare to hold their professors accountable for anything?

Heated debates

Education reform is a terrible thing to waste. There is a heated international debate on how to deal with the rush for seats in auditoriums (examples can be found in this article on an overloaded system and this article on massification), on what higher education shall be about – knowledge for knowledge’s sake or skills for jobs, and if the latter, on how to best get there. This is a discussion about the future of higher education and about taking the right decisions, now. It would be a pity to let it revolve only around issues of institutional orientation and not to recognise its importance also for academic integrity, as well as its potential to shape approaches to malpractice prevention in the sector.

Detect and respond to students wants and needs

The right decisions, from an integrity point of view, would be those that strengthen the ability of tertiary institutions to detect and respond to what students want, what they can achieve, and what they expect before and after they board their academic planes. Proper functioning admissions and career guidance mechanisms, effective support in coping with the transitional shock from school to university, and horizontal mobility between fields of study are only few examples of system level adjustments that would result in better placement and support for students, thus stimulating an intrinsic motivation to study, to respect academic standards, and to demand transparent and fair institutional management. The empowerment of students in such a way is good, maybe even the best investment in academic integrity and should be placed at the core of the debate and of anti-corruption strategies in higher education.

If you want to learn about research/resources, tools, strategies and current initiatives in this field, map the major areas of higher education administration and practice affected by corruption, identify organisations/NGOs operating in this field and discuss the role of academics and practitioners in strengthening transparency and integrity, sign up for the conference workshop ‘Fighting corruption and academic malpractice in higher education’ taking place on 10 September at EAIE Istanbul 2013.

By Mihaylo Milovanovitch, Policy Analyst at OECD Directorate for Education.