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Why are so many universities “blinking nervously in the spotlight”?

The complex world of higher education continued to find itself under the anti-corruption spotlight during 2020, with no let up as we enter 2021. Look out for the common themes emerging from this selection of the matters we have been tracking in recent months.

In this edition we visit Austria, the UK and the US and wind up in Australia, before drawing a few conclusions. And no, we will not be rehashing the case of the jailed celebrity parents who paid to get their kids into top schools in the US. 


Another high profile politician plagued by plagiarism allegations

The academic plagiarism charges that seem to plague politicians in German-speaking countries claimed another victim – or could that be perpetrator – in Austria last month. 

Minister Christine Aschbacher resigned from her cabinet position on 9 January 2021, having been responsible for the labour, families and youth portfolios. While the conservative politician has not admitted guilt, she stepped down after plagiarism investigator Stefan Weber made accusations about the content of two of her dissertations. He has described the most recently submitted work as containing “never-before-seen depths of gobbledegook, nonsense and plagiarism“, determining that more than a fifth of the text was lifted from other sources without citations. 

Commentator Simon Ballan reports that the two universities concerned, who had rated Aschbacher’s work as excellent, are … blinking nervously in the spotlights. They are both being called on to review their assessments of her work and … work hard to salvage their own reputations. Read what prompted him to investigate Aschbacher’s qualifications. 

United Kingdom

The curious case of an ‘academician’

We all know that it is corruption if we sell a degree certificate for cash, but what is it if the certificate itself is ‘meaningless’ and it is awarded to attract donor funding? At the very least, it’s undesirable harm to the reputation of the institution.

The Oxford University brand must be one of the most valuable in the world of higher education, and its brand value is especially high in China. Capitalising on this, an Oxford professor created a certificate to give to a Chinese businessman who had apparently not even attended a short course at the university, as a means of encouraging him to make a sizeable donation to the business school. The certificate read ‘Belt and Road Academician from Oxford University’. 

It seems the professor may not have known that the recipient would arrange himself a high-profile award ceremony, let alone that the ‘award’ would be widely-publicised and raise questions during 2020 about the lengths the university would go to for funding. In his defence the professor allegedly argued that he had looked up the definition of the word ‘academician’ and  concluded that it was meaningless in this context. Meaningless? Not exactly. Harmless? Not from a reputation perspective.

Check the definition yourself and see if you agree with us that its use in this case constitutes (deliberate) misrepresentation. The professor has since retired.

United States

Washington: How many ghosts did you teach today?

Another higher ed institution under the spotlight is Western Washington University, who dismissed an internal auditor in December 2020 – shortly after she had completed a report on so-called ‘ghost courses’, the padding of student records by the institution with untaken courses to justify higher financial aid from the federal government.

There is particular interest in the case as the same university had recently agreed to pay a settlement to another dismissed audit team member of $216 000 (over R3 million). His dismissal followed his persistent efforts to investigate the travel expenses of the (now former) university president.

You can read about the culture of fear alleged to prevail in the institution’s support services here. We’ll be watching how authorities respond to allegations that the university is defrauding the government. Such ‘false claims’ against government funding tend to attract severe penalties.  

Philadelphia: You were doing electrical engineering research in a strip club?

2020 saw another academic facing charges of theft – again from federal grant funds. The head of electrical engineering at Drexel University, Philadelphia who had been employed at the university for decades and been lauded as one of its top grant funding generators, spent some $185 000 in grant money on personal expenses such as services at strip clubs and entertainment at sports bars, admittedly over a 10 year period. The funding had been sourced from the US Navy, Department of Defence and the National Science Foundation. The grant cheat made a full confession, resigned and repaid some of the money in a civil settlement with the university, but still faces the prospect of jail time on the criminal charges.

Texas: Two for you, one for me admission and scholarship scandal

Late last year saw Texas Southern University hit by the revelation that a (now former) assistant dean of admissions and financial aid had abused his position for self-enrichment, awarding double bursaries to students and then getting them to refund him the second amount directly. The assistant dean, who had been with the university since 1999, received some $100 000 from just four of the students in return for their admissions and scholarships. This time the university president also stepped down – it seems that responsibility for the absence of effective systems to guard against such fraud sits squarely at the top of the institution. The university is facing multiple probes by enforcement agencies.


The fertile grounds of South Australia … for corruption in state universities

“Organisations that struggle to listen to their employees, call out impropriety or take effective action against improper conduct are at a heightened risk of corruption,” writes the independent commissioner for corruption in the forward to the ICAC University Integrity Report. The report findings are based on a survey of staff at the three state universities in South Australia, published in December 2020.

While academics routinely and roundly reject any comparison of their context to that found in corporate corridors, the truth is that university staff and those in the private sector both face considerable pressure to deliver results under financial constraints – with an increasing tendency to cut corners against one’s better judgement being a consequence.

“Organisations that struggle to listen to their employees, call out impropriety or take effective action against improper conduct are at a heightened risk of corruption”

– ICAC University Integrity Report

Page through the ICAC report and see whether (with a few institution and place name changes), it could have been written about your university, wherever you are in the world! The challenges that give rise to increased corruption risk in South Australia are being experienced by institutions of higher education the world over.

In conclusion

The term ‘former’ cropped up repeatedly in this edition – increasingly the consequences of unethical and corrupt behaviour are coming home to roost in the higher education environment, just as they are in other sectors.

In contrast to those working in the corporate environment, higher education institutions are lagging in the provision of workplace ethics awareness training, and despite having an abundance of often good policies, these are often not effectively communicated or complied with.

So many illustrious careers are being derailed by those who, in the face of the unmanaged complexities of working in today’s universities, find themselves acting against their better judgement.

Those who engage in unethical activity in the higher education context would no doubt reject any comparison between themselves and corrupt government officials. The similarity? That would be the abuse of public funds in most instances and of public trust in every instance.

Until the sector recognises that its anti-corruption processes need to be as robust as those in place outside the education environment, it is these ‘former’ professors who have to serve as cautionary tales – if not time in jail.


‘Ethicalerts’ are published by Ethicalways. Contact Ethicalways to find out how we bolster integrity in institutions of higher education, and many other sectors, through ethics, anti-corruption and anti-fraud awareness and advisory services.

Find out about our Fraud Awareness Microlearning Series here and contact us for details of the Higher Education version of this programme. No need to subject your university staff to alienating corporate speak — we talk higher ed.

Penny Milner-Smyth

Author Penny Milner-Smyth

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