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World: Corruption Said To Be Flourishing In Education

  • Jeremy Bransten

Corruption is most often associated with business, government, or the police. But one surprising sector in which corruption flourishes all too easily is education. Experts meeting at an anticorruption conference in Prague have drawn attention to the corrosive effect that corruption in educational institutions can have on societies in transition.

Prague, 10 October 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Every two years since 1983, the International Anticorruption Conference has brought together politicians, bankers, law enforcement officials, academics, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to discuss the phenomenon of corruption -- in all its myriad forms -- and how to combat it.

This year's session in Prague was the biggest yet, with hundreds of delegates from countries ranging from Albania to Zimbabwe attending more than 100 workshops and plenary sessions. While most workshops re-examined oft-discussed themes such as how to limit police corruption or how to ensure that privatization laws do not encourage graft, one workshop focused on an overlooked but especially pernicious phenomenon: corruption in education.

Teachers, in most countries, make up the largest single segment of the civil service. And as Nicholas Benett, a former World Bank education specialist with more than 40 years' experience working in the developing world, notes:

"We who come from the Western developed world assume that the function of a civil servant is in fact to serve the people -- the function of a teacher is to teach the children. But in fact, in the poorer countries, where I've lived and worked, the function of a civil servant or a civil service has not been so much to employ people to serve the people, but to employ as an end in itself."

In much of Africa and the poorer parts of Asia, teaching jobs are seen as patronage posts. Teachers must bribe their way into teacher-training college. In Cameroon, the going rate is one goat and $80. Once students graduate, their teaching positions will allow them to recoup that amount many times over in bribes from students and their parents.

Benett listed the various forms of corruption to which teachers resort in much of Africa. The first is absenteeism. Many teachers collect their government salaries and do not show up to teach. When they do, they demand money from students for letting them pass exams or for after-school tutoring programs. On frequent occasions, teachers in rural areas will use students as unpaid labor on their farms.

The ministries of education of many countries, meanwhile, are heavily engaged in what Benett terms the "textbook racket." Textbooks in francophone West Africa, for example, sell for more than twice the price at which they are sold in France. Education Ministry staff have themselves written in as textbook co-authors so they can reap "royalties" on sales. And they issue directives forcing schools and parents to buy new textbooks every year, ensuring profits are kept high.

The examples cited by Benett are so unbelievable and egregious that they could perhaps be dismissed as another tragic Third World phenomenon. But Teresa Ogrodzinska -- the director of the Polish Children's and Youth Foundation, an NGO -- notes that there are many parallels to the countries of the postcommunist world:

"Corruption in education has a very demoralizing impact on the young generation. There exists a growing conviction that money is more important than the individual learning effort and intellectual capacities."

In Poland, as a result of the communist legacy, teachers have low salaries but enjoy near-total job protection under special government statute.

"This law gives teachers a lot of security -- it is a kind of government umbrella over teachers. So, it is very difficult for a school director to throw out a teacher even, for example, if the teacher is an alcoholic and comes, after drinking, to the lessons," Ogrodzinska says.

Furthermore, teachers are not considered to be "public persons," which means under Polish law they cannot be prosecuted for accepting bribes. This revision of the penal code was adopted to bring Polish law in line with EU norms, under which the definition of "public person" includes only higher-level civil servants and politicians.

"Teachers cannot be prosecuted in Poland for accepting bribes because bribing teachers is not considered to be a crime," says Ogrodzinska.

The combination of job security, low pay, and immunity from prosecution is a potent mixture. Ogrodzinska says that under such conditions, corruption in schools flourishes, and in turn, teaches students all of the wrong values:

"If teachers take money for passing exams or giving better exams, it is well known in the school. Students pass this information from one to another, so it is a kind of school of corruption."

But parents, eager to ensure that their children earn good grades, often willingly participate and pay bribes for their children. Ksenya, a university student from Kazakhstan attending the seminar, confirmed that the practice was widespread in her own postcommunist country:

"It is a very big factor in Kazakhstan -- we had that discussion yesterday. Basically, you can buy a diploma. It's not a secret. It can cost much, but it's not a secret. You can buy tests for entrance exams and it normally costs about the same as enrolling on a commercial basis at university. Before it was more about connections, and now it's more that people who have money can buy it. Under the Soviet Union, not that many people had money and could buy it. Now, more and more people who are in banking and in the oil business, for instance, in Kazakhstan -- they can buy it."

Ogrodzinska related the tale of one small-town teacher in Poland who declined to take bribes and refused to promote students who had not legitimately passed their exams:

"The whole community in this small town was against him. And in fact they expelled him from the education post. He didn't give up. He created an exhibit on cheating and it has become his own crusade. He just travels from town to town with this exhibit showing how it looks like in Poland and how it should look like according to European standards."

The influence of textbook manufacturers, as in Africa, has also led to significant corruption in Polish school administrations. Ogrodzinska notes that under new educational reforms, teachers are now able to select their own textbooks and teaching materials from a broad list approved by the Ministry of Education. The law was meant to decentralize decision-making and provide children with a richer palette of educational aids. The result, however, has been that textbook publishers have begun soliciting teachers directly.

"Suddenly, a huge market for textbooks arose in Poland and it works like this: Publishers contact teachers directly, giving them different gifts. Sometimes it's a holiday in the Bahamas, sometimes other gifts, for taking their textbooks," says Ogrodzinska.

Nicholas Benett argues that corruption among teachers is among the most serious forms of vice in modern society because teachers play such an important part in molding children's perceptions as natural mentors.

"If we're creating heroes who are people who steal and rob and cheat, then these are the kind of people that the young are going to look up to," Benett says.

Benett recalls that when he started his career in the West African nation of Ghana 40 years ago, the country boasted a proud and relatively corruption-free education system. Ghana, he says, "looked like it was going to make it." But four decades later, the Ghanian educational system is in shambles, crippled by corruption like all sectors of the country's civil service.

It is a tale of warning for the postcommunist countries of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.