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The purpose of this review is to provide examples and experience of how others in this sector have reduced the damaging impact of corruption. The sector-specific information is relevant for politicians, leaders, managers, civic groups, company executives and others. We hope it will bring both knowledge and inspiration.



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  1. Corruption issues in higher education
  2. Reforms in higher education
  3. Developing an overall approach
  4. Transnational initiatives in higher education
  5. Ask & Connect
  6. Bibliography


Corruption in higher education is growing global problem, in both developed and developing countries. It is estimated that fraud in international higher education is a $1.5 billion to $2.5 billion business [1]. The corruption types in higher education range from grand corruption involving politicians (e.g. unearned degrees) and diversion of higher education budgets, to bureaucratic and administrative corruption in university management, to academic dishonesty and to sextortion. One factor that makes higher education increasingly vulnerable to corruption is that a university degree is now, more than ever, a prerequisite for access to good jobs, positions of power and other benefits. Moreover, the most prestigious higher education institutions are very exclusive and only accept a small percentage of the myriad applications they receive [2]. The risks extend to faculty as well, as the drive to publish, have good rankings and attract research funding offers incentives to fudge numbers or falsify research [3].

There is no magic bullet that can cure the problem in one go. Nonetheless, there are several actions that governments, universities and stakeholders can implement to tackle particular corruption problems. Although universities operate under political conditions that may make it difficult to be autonomous and push back against the corrupting influence of politicians, there are many possibilities and entry points for measures against cheating, sexual harassment, embezzlement and other abuses.

Why it matters

Higher education is the source of skilled labour and leadership; it has the responsibility to produce graduates who can change and improve the status quo. It is one of the most important societal mechanisms to increase social trust[4]. The sector is pivotal in breaking the vicious cycle of corruption. Corrupt practices in higher education break the link between personal effort and anticipation of reward, proliferating “ends justify means” norms that can further erode integrity and cohesion in the wider society. Employees and students come to believe that personal success comes, not through merit and hard work, but through cutting corners [5]. Worryingly, a recent survey of 7,000 young people (18-35 years of age) in East Africa found that 60% admired people who used get-rich-quick schemes. More than half believed it does not matter how one makes money while 53% said they would do anything to get money. 37% would take or give a bribe and 35% believed there is nothing wrong with corruption.[6]

Universities sit at the apex of our knowledge-based societies, and for this reason are imbued with academic freedom and institutional autonomy so that they can engage in scientific reflection and knowledge production [7]. When higher education is infiltrated by corrupt practices, the very foundations on which societies are based are threatened. “Cheating that makes exams and degrees worthless reflects the failed internalisation of truth and honesty rules. When it also aims at obtaining a license to teach or practice medicine, it turns into the betraying of co-nationals.” [8]. Corruption threatens the legitimacy of universities as knowledge producing and training institutions. Universities’ political and corporate liaisons may create conflicts of interest and undermine the autonomy, academic freedom and impartiality of higher education institutions. The raison d’etre of universities relates to humanity’s search for truth, order, meaning and welfare [9]. Corruption undermines these values and poses an existential threat to universities and to society in general.

Corruption in the higher education sector is, of course not an isolated phenomenon. Nonetheless, many of the corruption types are specific to higher education and can be successfully tackled at a sector or university level, as we show here.


The originating author of this work is Dr. Monica Kirya, who is a Senior Program Adviser at the Anti-Corruption Resource Centre ‘U4’ in Norway. The material will also in due course be available as a U4 publication. Additional contributions have come from Mark Pyman.

1. Corruption issues in higher education

FOCUS on the specific corruption issues - Guidance summary

1.1 Typology

The one-page diagram below summarises the 24 specific corruption issues that practitioners have identified in higher education. It is laid out under four category headings: political corruption, administrative and bureaucratic corruption, academic fraud and cheating, and sextortion.


Here is the typology also in tabular form

Each of the corruption types is discussed below.

1.2 Political Corruption in Higher Education

Grand corruption involving political manipulation of university affairs is common.  Ibrahimi (2014), discussing patronage politics in higher education in Afghanistan, observes that the role of patronage networks in universities is tied to the role they play in the “political socialisation” of the emerging educated class [10]. University campuses in developing countries are microcosms and drivers of the political and social environment of the country, and hence it is not surprising that governments and ruling parties are often involved in the running of universities.

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1.3 Administrative and Bureaucratic Corruption

1.3.1 Accreditation and licensing

The liberalization of higher education in many developing countries during the 1990s led to a mushrooming of private institutions offering new degree programmes. However, the accreditation system was slow to catch up with the changes. Much of it was still controlled by senior academics from public institutions who had an interest in preventing competition. In cases where degrees were the foundations for a professional license, the stakes for accreditation were high, creating incentives for bribery and extortion in the accreditation process [25].

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1.3.2 Selection and Admission of Students

Corruption can taint selection and admission to university whether it is highly decentralized and controlled by individual faculty or centralized and controlled by a single body. Bribery can earn a pass mark, or papers may be leaked in advance to give some students an unfair advantage.  A bribe can secure carte blanche admission for a student who does not even qualify to be in higher education. In India, in 2015, the authorities bust a crime ring in Madhya Pradesh led by an assistant professor who was working with officials from the examinations board. The ring had helped more than 2,000 students to get admitted into medical school by unlawful means. They sold examination questions, facilitated “grade improvements,” and provided student impersonators to take admissions for a fee of more than USD 15,000 per student [26].

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1.3.3 Recruitment, management and promotion of academic and administrative staff

Nepotism and favouritism in the recruitment and promotion of academic and non-academic staff at institutions of higher education makes a mockery of meritocracy and may affect the quality of teaching and research negatively. A survey of university students in Ghana and Nigeria perceived that favouritism and nepotism were among the major forms of corruption prevailing in higher education institutions [33]. Hiring of academic staff not based on merit puts the quality of higher education in jeopardy.

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1.3.4 Finance and procurement fraud risks in higher education

Research grants are a major opportunity for corruption in developing countries. Money meant for research is misappropriated through various means such as travel and workshop fraud – false or duplicate payments for travel and workshop reports for events that did not happen; payroll fraud – false or fictitious employees on research programmes; stipend fraud – false recipients/vouchers and invoice fraud – fake or enhanced Consultant or Vendor invoices or receipts. In addition, some projects might, unbeknownst to the donors involved, achieve duplicate funding, and the additional funding used for personal business and activities [37].

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1.4 Academic fraud and cheating

1.4.1 Plagiarism and Essay Mills

Plagiarism occurs when a person presents someone else’s ideas, phrases, sentences or data as one’s own work. Another person’s work should always be properly and accurately referenced. Self-plagiarism involves submitting work that one has previously submitted [40].

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1.4.2 Falsification of research processes and results

Falsification of research data poses enormous challenges for humanity as a whole. “Climategate,” the scandal where the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia was found to have tampered with data on global warming, is one of the most egregious examples of this type of behaviour. The incident added fuel to the fire of climate change and other scientific theory deniers, casting a shadow over the credibility and integrity of academia as a whole [46].

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1.4.3 Examination Fraud

Examination fraud takes various forms, from leaking exams in advance, to cheating during examination by using unauthorized material, impersonation, where examination candidates pay other people to sit exams on their behalf, as well as alteration of marks either directly on the answer sheet or in the examination records management system. The latter is usually instigated by a bribe from a student to a lecturer or member of the administrative team.

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1.4.4 Degree/ Diploma Mills

Some degree mills are mere printing shops that sell counterfeit degrees and transcripts from legitimate schools, while others are shadowy institutions that promise applicants degrees in a very short period of time, sometimes as little as five days or after a short period of “study.”

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1.5 Sextortion and sexual harassment

The International Association of Women Judges defines sextortion as “the abuse of power to obtain a sexual benefit or advantage…. a form of corruption in which sex, rather than money, is the currency of the bribe. It is not limited to certain countries or sectors, but can be found wherever those entrusted with power lack integrity and try to sexually exploit those who are vulnerable and dependent on their power.”[59] Sexual harassment of mostly female students and female lecturers by male lecturers and professors is considered a serious problem in higher education, but is not widely studied, especially in developing countries [60]. Despite few in-depth studies on the problem, media reports followed by public outcry against sexual harassment in universities are common [61].

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2. Reforms in higher education

Specific Reform Measures - guidance summary

There are various cross-national, national and institutional level initiatives to combat corruption in higher education. This section outlines a number of strategies that are underway as well as possibilities that have been suggested by UNESCO and other bodies. Combatting corruption in higher education is the responsibility of the various actors involved such as students, academics administrators, ministry of education officials, higher education regulatory agencies, professional regulatory bodies, civil society (especially professional and trade associations) as well as development partners.

While public and private universities have some peculiarities, corruption-related problems cut across the divide, especially in developing countries where public universities have privatized many courses and other aspects of management. The suggestions below therefore apply to both public and private universities.

Universities inhabit different political landscapes that shape the possibilities for tackling corruption. Political commitment is often the necessary foundation for enacting and implementing institutional reforms, and institutional change is determined by the distribution of power among various actors that shape and influence the institution. As intellectual elites, academics are part of the intra-elite power struggle and bargaining process that shapes a country’s political settlement [65]. Thus, universities may become “captured” by the ruling regime or be granted autonomy to pursue their intellectual goals with little interference. A university’s ability to enact and implement an anti-corruption strategy may therefore depend on how it is affected by political dynamics at national level and its degree of autonomy from the ruling elite.

For each of the categories of higher education corruption, suggested reform measures are summarised below.

 Category         Suggested reform measures – higher education
Political corruption ·      Enact university autonomy in governing legislation

·      Participatory budgeting and budget monitoring

·      Lobbying and Advocacy

Adminiustrative and bureaucratic corruption ·      Improve transparency and accountability in accreditation bodies

·      Minimum and progressive requirements for accreditation to enable universities to grow

University good governance and international quality assurance frameworks that ensure inclusion of students and other stakeholders in management and establish a code of conduct and specify standards across all areas with strict sanctions for wrongdoing

Academic fraud and cheating ·      Anti-plagiarism software

·      Secure examination printing process

·      Increase number of invigilators and install CCTV for examination monitoring

·      Anonymise exam answer scripts using bar codes

·      Cyber-security measures to safeguard the “back end” of results database

·      Document verification technology to detect forged certificates

·      Blockchain technology to facilitate tamper-proof certification

External examination procedures

Sextortion ·      Gender parity policies

·       Specific sexual harassment prevention and redress policies and procedures


2.1 Improving university governance to address political and bureaucratic corruption

Transparency and accountability at the very top are indispensable. Accreditation bodies should be above board by ensuring that accreditation processes are transparent and adhere to the law. Conflicts of interest involving members of accreditation bodies with ties to university promoters must be prevented and dealt with firmly if discovered.

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2.2 Information and Communication Technology

Anti-plagiarism software such as Turnitin is used by universities and high schools across the world with the aim of detecting plagiarism. A study showed that higher education institutions using anti-plagiarism software realised a 44% decline in plagiarism and a 3000% increase in the number of papers graded online between 2010 and 2014. The research also found that higher education institutions in 12 of 15 countries using Turnitin reduced unoriginal content by more than 30%. Most content matches from highly plagiarised submissions came from matches to other students’ papers rather than from websites, academic textbooks or journals [71].

ICTs are also important in education and awareness raising on academic integrity. There are a number of eMOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) for students, covering plagiarism and related matters [72]. It is also important to educate or refresh the knowledge of teaching staff on these crucial matters.

Data-driven decision-making is on the rise. It requires higher education institutions to have unified and robust information management systems that are secure from hackers and cyber-attacks. Blockchains have potential for tamper-proof examination records systems. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology developed an app called Blockcerts Wallet that issues virtual diplomas that students can receive via their smartphones. Students also receive the traditional paper certificate. The digital certificates are tamper-proof and easy to share with other schools, prospective employers or relatives. In a related development, the Sony Corporation and Sony Global Education have developed a platform that compiles and manages student records from several schools. School administrators, recruiting firms, and other interested parties can use it to verify the credibility of the credentials submitted to them [73].

2.3 Coalition-building and student involvement

The internationalization of higher education offers opportunities to spread norms that promote integrity and honesty in academia. Gow’s research on Chinese Masters’ Graduates of UK institutions returning to China showed that the graduates had developed a stricter approach to plagiarism and academic integrity following their masters’ courses in the UK and their subsequent educational career. He highlights the potential of such returning graduates to act as a cultural bridge for academic integrity within internationalised higher education [74].

Coalitions and networks of universities can work together to promote integrity in academia. There are many such networks and associations, such as the Worldwide University Network [75] Association of African Universities, Association of Universities of Asia and the Pacific, and the International Network for Higher Education in Africa. They function as Non-Governmental Organisations and work together to promote shared values and interests, including academic integrity. For example, the Global University Network for Innovation in Africa – GUNi-Africa has launched a series of workshops to raise public awareness of the problem of academic corruption and its implications, It is developing an Academic Integrity Index that would be tied to university rankings [76].   The Romanian Coalition for Clean Universities developed an audit and ranking system for universities in Romania that has succeeded in significantly reducing corruption in that country [77]. The Universities Against Corruption Initiative, under the Anti-Corruption and Integrity in the Arab Countries (ACIAC) of UNDP, is mobilising universities in the Middle East and Arab States to combat corruption in higher education [78].

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2.4 The role of external quality assurance and other external stakeholders

External quality assurance by independent regulatory agencies is a crucial component of anti-corruption strategies for higher education [82]. In Romania, the introduction of an independent university ranking that includes academic integrity and financial irregularities as assessment criteria helped universities to become more transparent and compete by adopting better governance practices [83].   As recounted above, in Uganda and Kenya, regulatory agencies have been instrumental in denouncing fake degrees and insisting that universities that awarded them cancel them.

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3. Developing an overall approach

Political & Tactical Approaches - Guidance summary

3.1 Strategies for reducing corruption in admissions, examinations and certification

3.1.1 Authentication and verification of qualifications

3.1.2 Vetting international recruitment agencies

3.1.3 Improving admission and assessment processes and safeguarding records

3.1.4 Enacting institution-specific academic integrity policies

3.1.5 Strengthening Ethics and Integrity Teaching at University Level

3.2 Combatting sexual harassment and sextortion

Many universities have specific sexual-harassment related policies. However, these are often not enforced due to a number of complicated factors. Makerere University in Uganda enacted a Policy and Regulations on Sexual Harassment Prevention in 2006, but only one case has been reported and proceeded through the framework created under the policy.[97] Sexual harassment has for a long time been on the agenda of feminists and women’s rights activists, and there is a plethora of initiatives, laws, policies, and suggested frameworks inspired by the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), 1979 and the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women 1994.

More recently, UN Women is piloting a new initiative to promote gender parity in universities under the HeForShe campaign. The initiative considers combatting sexual harassment a necessary part of improving gender parity at universities. HeForShe is a global effort to engage men and boys in removing the social and cultural barriers that prevent women and girls from achieving their potential, and thus attempt to reshape society. Under the HeForShe IMPACT 10x10x10 pilot, UN Women is partnering with 10 universities [98] to mobilise university campuses to reshape the global discourse on gender equality. HeForShe IMPACT 10x10x10 engages with universities at the administration and student level on gender sensitization and gender-based violence. The engaging universities undertook three baseline commitments: first, to implement gender sensitisation education for students, faculty and staff; second, develop programmes to address SGBV on campus; and third, to ensure that top university leadership was at the forefront of promoting the IMPACT 10x10x10. Universities further undertook to achieve gender parity in academia and administration.

Under the IMPACT 10x10x10, universities are implementing a number of measures to address sexual harassment. These include:

  • Compulsory workshops on sexual consent to be offered to all new students as part of orientation programmes and some specifically targeted towards male students such as the “Good Lad” campaign at Oxford University.
  • Development of a first response mobile phone app under the banner “Code4 Rights.” (Oxford University).
  • Setting Up stand-alone gender equity offices to encourage reporting of gender harm (University of Witwatersrand).
  • Training both students and staff on recognising and reporting sexual and gender-based violence (Georgetown University).
  • Stony Brook University Centre for Study of Men and Masculinities will promote global understanding on the role of men in achieving gender equality through research, teaching and convening conferences [99].

The HeForShe initiative therefore considers sexual harassment in universities not as a stand-alone problem, but one that is linked to the lack of gender equality and parity in higher education. Programmes to promote gender parity are therefore implemented in tandem with specific programmes to address gender-based violence.

Similarly, academic corruption is often a symptom of wider problems in society and in national politics, reflected at university level. Nonetheless, universities, as spring boards for professional training and skills acquisition, are well placed to counteract the vicious cycle of corruption by educating students against corruption and dealing firmly and consistently with those who break the rules.

3.3 Agents of change

There are different stakeholder groups who can positively influence the integrity agenda.

National higher education regulatory bodies have an important role to play in ensuring that universities within their jurisdictions embark on strengthening academic integrity as part of accreditation processes and external quality assurance. Where such bodies are themselves “captured” and susceptible to corruption, civil society, including professional associations, should advocate for change and put pressure on them to fulfil their roles.

Development agencies can play a role by supporting the expansion of global and regional university networks. Many such networks operate as NGOs and should be supported to publicise the issue of academic integrity and educate students, faculty and the public at large on the importance of academic integrity to the whole of society. Some bi-lateral agencies have existing relationships with educational cooperation institutions such as the British Council and the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD). Such institutions can play a substantial role in enhancing academic integrity in their partnerships, not only through returning students acting as “bridges,” but also in more pro-active ways. For instance, donors should consider funding anti-plagiarism software licences, funding further in-depth research on academic integrity in developing countries, and supporting education and awareness raising for all actors in higher education.  The EU is funding a Pan-African Programme on quality assurance and accreditation in Africa, involving the implementation of the Pan-African Quality Assurance Framework mentioned above. Other agencies may consider supporting aspects such as enhancing the financial management skills of researchers and faculty who manage research grants [100].

In addition, private higher education is a field that is ripe for investment, due to the huge unmet demand in developing countries. Private investors from developed countries should partner with developing countries to establish more universities that measure up to international quality assurance standards. Universities promoted by Multi-national Corporations can be moral entrepreneurs that contribute to norm change in the countries where they operate [101]. This would improve competition and standards in higher education, in addition to playing a role in producing the human capital needed to enable low-income countries to achieve their development goals.

Transnational and regional networks of universities should work together to coordinate and build upon the ongoing efforts to curb corruption in higher education at institutional, national and transnational level.

4. Transnational initiatives in higher education

Transnational initiatives - Guidance summary

There are three main international centres and resources for tackling corruption and strengthening integrity in higher education that may help, plus several others that we know of:

International Centre for Academic Integrity (ICAI)

The International Centre for Academic Integrity (ICAI) is a membership organization of universities from various countries, mostly in the USA, but also in Europe, the Middle East and Asia. It was founded to combat cheating, plagiarism, and academic dishonesty in higher education. It also aims to encourage the cultivation of cultures of integrity in academic communities throughout the world. It offers assessment services, resources, and consultations to its member institutions, and facilitates conversations on academic integrity topics each year at its annual conference [102].

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International Institute for Educational Planning, IIEP-UNESCO

IIEP-UNESCO, based in Paris, has been an expertise centre on tackling corruption and strengthening integrity in the education system for many years. They provide support to countries that are in the process of launching public expenditure tracking surveys (PETS)report cards, and audits, or who are conducting an integrity assessment of their education sector. It also carries out research projects and activities to document successful strategies to promote transparency and accountability in a variety of educational planning/management domains. The IIEP Ethics and Corruption in Education Programme develops an understanding of how to reshape educational planning by considering transparency and accountability concerns.

They produce guidance in integrity in higher education (See here and here, for example). They are active in respect of both school education and higher education. For example, in April 2018 they organised for education and university officials from Montenegro to learn from Geneva’s experience in promoting integrity in higher education. They have a comprehensive web-based resource platform, ETICO, with various resources on the issue of ethics and corruption in education, including higher education [109].

Magna Charta Observatory

The Magna Charta Observatory of Fundamental Values and Rights (MCO) regards itself as the global guardian of fundamental university values and assists universities and higher education systems to operate effectively in accordance with them. It does this for the benefit of students, staff, society and universities themselves [112]. The Observatory is a signatories’ association, independent from political organisations or interest groups. The signatory universities – through their rectors, presidents and vice-chancellors, who act on behalf of their institutions – are connected to the organization by their commitment, present and future, to comply with the principles of the Magna Charta Universitatum. The Observatory undertakes its work to ensure the integrity of intellectual and scientific work in Institutions and society, thus reinforcing trust in relationship between universities and their communities, be they local, regional, national or global [113]. Their work covers multiple countries, with a focus on the management of integrity (see for example Badrawi et al (2008) in “The management of university integrity’.

Other organisations

Center for International Higher Education of Boston College. The centre has established an online Higher Education Corruption Monitor—which provides updated resources (news, articles, videos, etc.) on corruption in higher education around the world, serving as a forum for awareness-creation and information exchange[110].

European Charter for Researchers. This is an example of a comprehensive attempt to regulate the behaviour of researchers. It is a set of general principles and requirements which specifies the roles, responsibilities and entitlements of researchers as well as of employers and/or funders of researchers. It builds a framework for researchers, employers and funders inviting them to act responsibly and professionally in their work. In regard to corruption, it exhorts researchers to “be aware that they are accountable towards their employers, funders or other related public or private bodies as well as, on more ethical grounds, towards society as a whole. In particular, researchers funded by public funds are also accountable for the efficient use of taxpayers’ money. Consequently, they should adhere to the principles of sound, transparent and efficient financial management and cooperate with any authorised audits of their research, whether undertaken by their employers/funders or by ethics committees” [111].

Prospects HEDD and the UK Department of Education. Prospects is a UK provider of information, advice and opportunities to students and graduates. Prospects is the commercial trading subsidiary of the Higher Education Careers Services Unit (HECSU), a higher education agency and registered charity. They produce a useful guidance book on how universities can recognise and tackle degree fraud (See here).

Thomas Lancaster’s BlogSelf-described as “blog posts from Academic Integrity Expert and Higher Education professional,” the blog has a series of articles on contract cheating (essay mills) and other topical academic integrity issues [114].

UNODC. UNODC has started an initiative – Education for Justice – to help develop awareness of rule of law, and skills in ethical and moral problem solving. This initiative operates at university level as well as at school level. You may be able to benefit from the materials they are producing and the regional conferences they hold. E4J also curates a library of educational resources.

US Council for Higher Accreditation (CHEA). This has a special section on degree and accreditation mills on its website and, in 2009, issued a statement with UNESCO on how to discourage degree mills in higher education [115].


5. Ask & Connect

Contacting others really helps because corruption is a tough problem, with no ‘manual’ of how to go about tackling it. It is not just a ‘nice thing’ to do.

We find that others working in their sector round the world – whether it be a very public sector like health or a more private sector one like telecommunications – are open to being contacted and happy to respond. People everywhere really hate corruption, and this is why you’ll find lots of support for your reform ideas.

Professionals in each sector know that much of the corruption reform available guidance is generic, in reports or in the form of technical advice from institutions. They’ll be happy to get down to sector level actions, where the real impact of corruption issues is usually seen.

Here’s what we suggest:

  1. Ask us. We may be able to offer ideas and/or point you to relevant examples. Just contact us directly at editor@curbingcorruption.com
  2. Get in touch with the people at the transnational organisations outlined in Section 4 of each of the sector reviews. Ask them for their help and input.
  3. Ask other readers and followers of CurbingCorruption: Use the Twitter and Linkedin buttons below or on the top of the home page.
  4. Contact the authors of any of the articles and references that we cite.  Our experience is that they are happy to respond to questions.

Contacting others also has a second benefit. Most of us who are involved in efforts against corruption, whatever their country or sector, are nervous of whether our anti-corruption ideas are plausible. Officials are aware they have no deep knowledge of how to tackle corruption and have less time to spend on this than they would like; so they are lacking in confidence. The best way to gain confidence is to talk with other people who also understand the problems in your sector.


Full bibliography: Higher education


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