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More Than One Way To Fight Corruption in Education

“Education matters. Integrity in education matters too—corrupt schools and universities hinder prosperity, cause long-term damage to societies and raise the cost of education at the expense of equity and quality,” writes Barbara Ischinger, the Director for Education at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

The way we address corruption in education also matters. Strategies that focus on monitoring or punishing specific instances of corruption are too often politically motivated and fail to address the root causes of corruption. If our goal is reform that eliminates transparency gaps, perverse incentives, and contradictory or confusing regulations that lead to corruption, then we must take a systematic approach to monitoring corruption.

The OECD released the report Strengthening Integrity and Fighting Corruption in Education in Serbia on September 13, 2012. This report takes a unique approach to corruption in education. Rather than documenting individual violations of laws or monitoring enforcement, the researchers at the OECD have conducted an analysis of root, systemic causes for malpractice, and of the legal framework surrounding Serbia’s education system. Researchers used the Integrity of Education Systems (INTES) research framework, which was developed with support from the Open Society Education Support Program, to assess four dimensions of integrity: access to education, quality of education, sound management of staff and resources, and capacity for corruption detection and prosecution.

Their goal was to identify shortcomings in education policy which create demand for corrupt practice, and to point out gaps in regulatory structures, financing mechanisms, or legal requirements which allow corruption to happen. Such gaps have the potential to put teachers, school principals and school governing boards, and parents and students in positions where they have a strong incentive or even a practical imperative to act in violation of regulations.

For example, the quality of education in Serbia is improving, but families still perceive the need for remedial lessons for difficult subjects. This fuels the proliferation of private tutoring. According to the report, more than a quarter of Serbian households with children in school engage at least one private tutor. In Serbia this could create a vicious cycle of falling behind during regular school hours, which creates need for tutoring, and in turn limits the effectiveness of learning in class. It could even create a “shadow” system, where tutoring is a survival strategy for passing exams or entering higher education. According to the report, the integrity of the education system is endangered by the absence of professional codes of conduct and weaknesses in the inspection system that does not sufficiently respond to this challenge.

To continue the example of compromising integrity for survival in the system, we can turn to hiring practices. Current rules make teachers and school principals depend on each other for appointment and reappointments. There is also a lack of transparent guidelines for hiring and firing of staff. In times when shrinking student numbers and austerity measures threaten the job prospects of many education professionals in Serbia, this means that political affiliation and/or bribes start to matter more than competence—a belief shared also by students, parents, and the wider community.

Identifying and discussing policy failure and regulatory gaps or inconsistencies, which have the potential to make corruption a survival strategy, has been a more successful catalyst for reform than monitoring and punishing the violations of individual teachers or schools.

“Already in its drafting phase, the report triggered considerable policy response and led to action by the Parliament of Serbia, which amended the laws on primary and on secondary education by adding on recruitment procedures for teachers. Furthermore, the European Commission also expressed interest in aligning the next cycle of financial aid to the country with the findings and recommendations of the report,” says Mihaylo Milovanovitch, author of the Integrity of Education Systems (INTES) methodology and assessment team leader.

The approach in this OECD research, piloted in Serbia, makes an important contribution to limiting corruption by looking at the structure of regulations and incentives within the system rather than taking a populist, search for the guilty party approach that punishes individual schools or teachers. A populist approach often makes headlines but it does little to prevent corruption. Instead it ends up pushing the discussion further into the shadows as people become afraid to raise the issue. By working at the system level, the OECD identifies problems with policy solutions. Doing so diffuses the tension around discussions of corruption for governments willing to take on this more systematic approach.

The OECD is currently writing a brief on the INTES research framework and considering countries that may be interested in participating in future research.

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