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Corruption in education

April 18, 2010

THE quality of education in the public sector is plummeting in Pakistan and the entire education system is facing institutional decay. It appears that the factors responsible for the sorry state of affairs of education converge on a single point corruption.

Corruption in education is not a problem tormenting Pakistan alone. It pervades the whole world, even countries that are the flag-bearers of modern learning and boast of a top-class academia. Unesco in a 2007 report examined in detail how corruption damaged universities and schools around the world. Koichiro Matsuura, the then director-general of Unesco, remarked that “such widespread corruption not only costs societies billions of dollars, it also seriously undermines the vital efforts to provide education for all”.

While corruption in education is a global issue, an objective comparison between corruption trends in Pakistan and other states reveals marginal differences in terms of the nature, means and methods. In Pakistan, corruption in education is institutionalised in such a way that it has become the norm, whereas in other countries rogue elements are involved in corruption at the individual level and in a clandestine manner.

For example, online education is offered by many well-known universities to cater to the needs of working people unable to pursue an education on campus. To exploit this facility, hundreds of unaccredited and fake online universities and colleges have popped up in the United States offering bogus degrees — from a Bachelor's to a Ph.D — for $500, while the cost of a real degree may go up to $50,000.

The other inappropriate practices in the US education sector include stakes in student loan-providing companies by financial administrators of the school. Cases of misappropriation or embezzlement of funds have not, by and large, surfaced in the UK. But corruption in the context of bogus colleges and universities is widespread there. There are numerous colleges that offer overseas students admission against the payment of, for example, £1,000 but issue the admission letters mentioning that the student has paid £5,000 to facilitate him or her acquire a UK visa. In case of visa refusal, the money is never refunded.

A Unesco survey on corruption in the education sector of different countries presents examples of malpractice in Italy exam questions are sold in advance; in France and Turkey the tendering process is violated; in Ghana there are illegal school fees and ghost teachers; in Cameroon the students pay bribes to get good grades and in the Ukraine the country's 175 private universities had to resort to paying bribes to acquire licences and accreditation.

Pakistan's education sector is rife with corruption from top to bottom. During my tenure in the National Accountability Bureau I dealt with the investigation of corruption cases of three districts involving millions of rupees embezzled. Such corrupt practices were committed on account of the withdrawal of extra monthly pay, salaries of ghost teachers, unauthorised provident funds, pension on retirement drawn multiple times and the illegal appointment of teachers through bribery in connivance with treasury officials.

The investigation of such cases revealed shocking facts about how officials of the education department played havoc with government funds.

Even today corruption continues unabated as the recruitment of teachers from the primary to the college level is done on a political basis in utter disregard of merit.

The budget and funds under different heads are massively misappropriated. Hundreds of schools in the rural areas remain disused and the teachers posted there do not appear for work or have outsourced their jobs in connivance with district officials against the payment of some part of their salaries.

The school maintenance committee fund, meant for meeting repair and other administrative expenses of schools, and the endowment funds allocated for helping poor students, are practically not auditable, hence these are heavily embezzled. Several projects launched in sponsorship with foreign donors to reform and upgrade education standards run into the brick wall of an immensely corrupt system and cannot produce the desired results.

The government seems to have conflated reforms with pumping more money into the education sector. In the national budget for 2009-10 the federal government allocated Rs31.6bn for education with an addition of Rs2bn for the promotion of education for all and Rs151.6m for social welfare and special education. The Punjab government set aside Rs22.38bn for 62,170 schools and 379 colleges. It has conceived a plan of establishing a knowledge city covering an area of 800 acres in Lahore.

The Sindh government reserved Rs6bn for its 49,240 schools and 175 colleges besides allocating Rs1.75bn on account of endowment funds for scholarships. A Sindh Education Reform Programme worth $300m is already under way with the support of the World Bank. Balochistan allocated Rs2.4bn for its 11,921 schools and 29 colleges while keeping Rs76m for scholarships and aid grants to students.

Investment in education is a positive move given the fact that Pakistan is at the bottom of developing countries as indicators suggest. But doling out such huge amounts of money without any solid monitoring or a proper regulatory and accountability system will not bring any fruitful results. There will only be wastage of resources and the creation of more opportunities for the misappropriation and embezzlement of funds.

Monitoring is currently perceived as necessary to the implementation of plans and utilisation of money. But it must been seen in a broader perspective so that it encompasses accountability as well, without which reforms in the education sector will remain a distant dream.