Corruption By Degree: China’s Crackdown Moves to the Academic Sector

The financial crisis of 2008 brought China’s decades-long reliance on cheap manufacturing exports to induce extraordinary growth and savings rates to a spluttering end. The plan henceforth is to stimulate domestic-led growth through science and innovation. The result is that China’s universities and research community is now more important than ever within the broader Chinese national vision and economic reforms. And hence, the academic sector is now in view of China’s corruption investigators. This piece introduces the nature of the corruption, and some examples of the ongoing crackdown.

Corruption in the academic sector in China applies mainly to capital expenditure, admissions and staff promotion. The least complex and most common area of corruption is said to be within campus-related construction and the purchase of goods and materials. University budgets for campus modernization have recently expanded. Related contracts have been awarded in some cases without proper tenders. This produces opportunity for nepotism and embezzlement of funds, which is said to take place with collusion from local and provincial officials.

Student admission processes are similarly said to be imperfect. Universities have permission to select a minority of students via interview and other selection methods, rather than through the national entrance examination process. It is this intake quota that is the most open for exploitation. In response to accusations of unfair entry for some students, the Ministry of Education has called for universities to publish the credentials of their students, including recording of entrance interviews and publishing their entrance exam scores. Universities found to be abusing the propriety admission process may be excluded from being able to use it. Prestigious Renmin University in Beijing is an example of an elite university that has been caught up in a number of entrance scandals.

The national college and graduate college entrance exams also face persistent threats of corruption. In the national graduate entrance exam held in the first week of January 2014 for example, 223 students in the north-western province of Heilongjiang alone were found to have violated exam regulations. 196 of these cheated using communication devices.

A well-covered case of such cheating involved the Harbin Polytechnic University’s MBA entrance examination. Since such devices are only allowed through with permission from exam officials, it is thought that university officials colluded with training centre officials responsible for hosting the entrance exam. Chinese media reported that some students were led to one room, and others to another, with one room allowing the use of such devices. Two admissions offers are currently suspended, and the entire MBA program on hold.

Within the university sector, it is also reported by Chinese media that promotions, tenure and titles are all available to be bought and sold for the right amount of cash.  Plagiarism between Chinese researchers and from non-Chinese sources is also rife. The Ministry of Education has called for “zero tolerance” to plagiarism. The Ministry of Science and Technology stripped a professor of a national prize in 2011 because of plagiarism.

Illustrating the government’s determination of crackdown on tacit permission given to such activities within the university system, are recent high-level investigations.  In December the Vice-President of Zhejiang University was arrested and suspended on suspicion of occupational crime. The vice president of Sichuan University was placed under investigation for suspected serious discipline violations in December.

China’s higher education reforms follow the 2010 “National Outline for Medium and Long-Term Education Reform and Development (2010-2020)”. This calls for the acceleration of the development of world-class Chinese universities. The success of the plan is necessary for realising China’s broader innovation goals that in their own right are now crucial for China being able to continue raise the standard of living across the country. The degree of success of the crackdown will impact not only the value of a Chinese degree going forth, but also the success of China’s intended economic transformation – and none less thus than the future of the world economy.

Lauren Johnston received her PhD in economics from Peking University, and is an expert on the Chinese university landscape. Indeed, it is unlikely that there are many native English speakers who know more about Chinese universities than she does. Lauren edits an online newsletter Sinograduate that offers in depth analysis of Chinese higher education issues. It is a genuine ‘must-read’ for anyone interested in this rapidly expanding sector. Lauren can be contacted at info@sinograduate.com

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Doughnuts, paper clips and door mats; MPs expenses claims are back in the news

Knowing what works in terms of tackling corruption is not easy.  In some places, it is straightforward enough to pinpoint what the problem is – a politician using an expenses regime for personal gain in order to, say, clean his moat or to renovate a duck house, for example – but finding a new set of processes to put that right can be surprisingly tricky.  Even now, five years after the MPs’ expenses episode originally hit the headlines in the UK, the story continues to run.  The Daily Mail (see here) ran a story on Saturday 25th January 2014 bemoaning not just the pettiness of claiming  30p for a jam doughnut (Rosie Cooper, Labour – for the record, I’d very much like to know where these 30p doughnuts are available, as that is an excellent price) , 4p for travel (Tristam Hunt, Labour), 7p for a paper clip (David Cameron, Conservative), 49p for a door mat (John Barrett, Lib Dem – are MPs now shopping at Poundland? That’s a super deal) and 19p for Blu-Tac (Pat McFadden, Labour).  The pettiness of some of these claims to one side, the Mail was also enraged as they (the MPs) simply “don’t seem to get it”.  What precisely they don’t “seem to get” remained tantalisingly unclear, as no effort whatsoever was put in to outlining what the perfect expenses regime would look like.  That, it seems, is not the Daily Mail’s job.  It’s much more straightforward to point out some of the quirks within the system, some of the grey areas and some of the more bizarre claims.  Ideas on how to put this right?  No suggestions forthcoming.

It is easy to see both why voters will be annoyed at seeing MPs claim money back on the most trivial of things and why the Mail (amongst others) refuses to outline how we might move this debate forward.  The ‘new’ post-2009 expenses regime, headed by the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, is undoubtedly tighter and better regulated than the system that came before it, but making value judgements on what is and what is not an acceptable expense is actually very difficult.  MPs have long grumbled that IPSA is a bureaucratic nightmare, although few have dared say that in public.  IPSA’s challenge is to create a system that can be consistent, fair and flexible.  MPs have different needs (i.e. if your constituency is Newcastle upon Tyne Central then you should surely be entitled to claim more in travel costs than if you represent, for example, London-based Twickenham) and they face different challenges in their daily work patterns; the expenses system needs to reflect this and needs to be quick enough on its feet to recognise the difference between legitimate and illegitimate claims.   If anyone reading this blog thinks they have the answer, then IPSA will no doubt be very keen to hear from you.

On an altogether different note, the first week of the new term is always an exciting time for students on Sussex’s MA in Corruption and Governance.  Why?  The internship and project part of the course commences.  And, 2014 sees no less than 14 students involved in such things.  Hazel Stephens and Kim Castle began working this week with police officers in the UK’s International Proceeds of Corruption Unit at New Scotland Yard (see here for an example of how the IPCU works), whilst Sam Weatherill has joined up with the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Anti-Corruption in Westminster.  Michael Badham-Jones, Francisco Ortiz and Felicitas Nuehaus will be working alongside the Overseas Anti-Corruption Unit (OACU) in the Square Mile, and no less than two different groups of students will be doing projects in conjunction with Transparency International in Berlin.  Exciting times ahead!

Dan Hough

Director, Sussex Centre for the Study of Corruption (SCSC)

For students of voting behaviour, corruption is what they’d call a ‘valence issue’

No one, in other words, sets out to make a case for more corruption.  Indeed, everyone (claims to) want to see less corruption.  The question is subsequently of how to go about achieving that, and not whether the aim itself is one worth achieving.

The ‘valence’ nature of corruption as an issue has not stopped the Aam Aadmi Party (literally, the ‘Party of the Common Man’) from causing quite a stir over the past few weeks in India.  Led by the articulate and approachable Arvind Kejriwal, the AAP caused a storm in a regional election in Delhi in December, gaining 28 seats and a plurality of the vote.  The party’s platform?  To tackle corruption.  Nothing more, nothing less.  After initially refusing to enter government (on account of needing another party to ensure a parliamentary majority), the AAP quickly had a change of heart and took on the challenge.  Delhi, and India, subsequently entered an interesting new chapter in its party political development.

It didn’t take long, however, before the AAP’s opponents were hurling abuse at the new upstart – Salman Khursid from the AAP’s main rival, the Congress Party, called Kejriwal an “anarchist with Jurassic ideas” whilst AAP party members were some of the “worst, stinking third grade people” in all of India.  Even AAP members have begun to join in with the criticisms, senior party figure Vinod Binny claiming that parts of the party manifesto “conned the people of Delhi”.  With friends like these …

The AAP’s recent success in the Indian capital certainly makes for interesting viewing.  Many of the AAP’s policies have a decidedly populist feel to them; giving each and every citizen of Delhi 700 litres of free water, for example, and promising to cut electricity bills by up to 50 per cent.  Much will depend on whether Kejriwal and his colleagues can quickly learn how to govern, and where and with whom they can and can’t make compromises.  History would tell us that the AAP will ultimately succumb to the long-standing dynasties in Congress and the BJP, but Kejriwal has already done much better than many single issue anti-corruption activists before him.  With a general election planned for the middle of 2014, Indian politics will certainly be worth keeping a close eye on.

Professor Dan Hough. Director of the Sussex Centre for the Study of Corruption.