Imagine that you, as a student, are forced by your professor to buy a textbook that she herself wrote in order to receive the points you need for your final grade. That’s the case for four out of ten students studying in Skopje, Macedonia, according to a survey that reveals pervasive cheating, plagiarism, and bribery in universities in the Balkans [PDF].
The survey was conducted by the Anti-Corruption Student Network in South East Europe (ACSN SEE) and looked at the impact of widespread corruption on the quality of higher education in Bulgaria, Croatia, Macedonia, Moldova, and Serbia.
The findings were disturbing. Less than a third of the students surveyed said they would report a teacher for taking a bribe. The number goes up to two-thirds if they were to report it anonymously. In Skopje, more than half of the students believe corruption is considerably or very present at higher education institutions in Macedonia, but many said they were reluctant to report incidents of it for fear of becoming targets for revenge.
The effect of this corruption has had a debilitating effect on these institutions. It decreases the quality of education, creates inequality among current and enrolling students, damages the credibility of universities, erodes motivation, and detaches students from the institutions serving them.
Perhaps most worryingly, all this corruption throws into question the very standards of the degrees that the students have devoted years of time and energy to earning.
Combating this corruption will mean giving students both the incentive and the security to report corruption cases. To this end, with the support of the Students Initiatives of the Open Society Higher Education Support Program, ACSN SEE is collaborating with students from Southeast Europe to gain insight into corruption in universities and develop methods to combat it from within.
The end result of this work is the First Aid Kit for Higher Education: A Know-How Guide for Student Researchers, which offers a roadmap for monitoring corruption and responding effectively. The kit is meant to help students identify the problems within their universities or faculties, take action, and encourage their universities to combat it.
An example begins at a public debate on codes of conduct, where several students and professors complained about professors forcing students to purchase books that their teachers had authored. A group of students decided to submit a complaint to the State Education Inspectorate, delivering copies of books purchased by their colleagues with a personal dedication note by the professor and a stamp. The inspector determined the behavior unlawful, and the professor was fined and given a last warning before termination of contract.
Helping students find ways to act is a crucial part of the equation. Last year, the Youth Educational Forum attempted to bridge the gap between students and institutions. The group brought in a state education inspector and created an informal setting at the university, inviting students to “have lemonade with the State Education Inspectorate.” In this way we tried to help students feel more at ease while talking about their concerns over corruption. Encouragingly, in the two hours the lemonade stand was opened, 12 students took the opportunity to state their challenges and file complaints.
The educational system as a whole needs to address corruption and encourage students, their professors, and the institutions themselves to speak out. By objecting instead of complying when a professor is forcing students to buy their book in return for better grades, when students are plagiarizing a paper, or when bribes are being solicited and paid, everyone can become an advocate for quality education.