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Leading with integrity

06 Jul 2020 | Becky Smith As part of a series of live digital events to replace this year’s Going Global conference for FE & HE leaders in international education, Advance HE collaborated with the British Council to explore issues relating to ethical leadership and governance as well as matters of academic integrity when facing major and ongoing change, particularly in light of the recent COVID-19 crisis.

Unethical practices can have serious implications. The consequences could mean applicants who lack the right connections are denied access to study at university. Furthermore, the falsification of qualifications or research could have life-threatening consequences by jeopardising public health and safety.

Recent high profile news stories have highlighted some questionable ethical practices in relation to HE on a global basis. These include the university admissions scandal in the United States which exposed unethical practices used by wealthy parents to fraudulently obtain university places for their children. Then there has been the sex for grades scandal in Uganda and the scandal that arose in Italy a couple of years ago relating to nepotism among former ministers and heads of Italian university departments. And, just a few weeks ago, it was reported that more than 90 students were caught cheating in assessments that had moved online as a result of the pandemic at Inha University's School of Medicine in South Korea.

In Australia, the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (TEQSA) has just announced it will be establishing a Higher Education Integrity Unit to focus on matters such as academic and research integrity, cybersecurity, foreign interference and admission standards. In the UK, the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) has recently published updated guidelines on how to address essay mills and contract cheating.

What role do we as leaders in global HE play in ensuring ethical practices and transparency in our sector, our institutions and among the academic community? What are the challenges we face in relation to integrity and how do we find solutions? COVID-19 and the response have also raised many deep and difficult questions regarding integrity and ethics.

Jo Chaffer, Advance HE’s Key Global Associate, framed the discussion by positioning integrity as the concept of ‘fairness’ and that, “…anything that happens to compromise quality and standards, and amplifies unfairness,” can really be classed as contributing to integrity breaches. She also highlighted some of the tensions faced by HE leaders as they deal with matters of transformation which can lead to, and expose, unethical behaviour. These may include financial instability, drives for massification, legacy systems and the pressure to differentiate within the sector. The need for leaders to gather intelligence, make decisions and take action with integrity at front of mind is critical.

We need to break the cycle of dependencies upon expectations that might lead to failures of academic integrity.

Jo Chaffer, Advance HE’s Key Global Associate

Dr Irene Glendinning & Dr Stella-Maris Orim from Coventry University highlighted findings from their recently published (2019) research into Corruption in Higher Education. Undertaken on behalf of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, the study found that although it varies in nature and prevalence, corruption in HE is a truly global issue. Nine key thematic areas of concern identified for the sector are:

  • Regulatory processes e.g. a lack of robust QA processes
  • Governance of HE providers e.g. political interference, nepotism & financial mismanagement
  • The teaching role e.g. academics working for essay mills, sexual harassment
  • Admissions & recruitment e.g. favouritism, fraud
  • Credentials & qualifications e.g. plagiarism, fake qualifications
  • Student assessment e.g. exam cheating, contract cheating (essay mills)
  • Research & academic publishing e.g. peer review scams
  • Disparities in understanding & values e.g. standards, definitions, consistency, cultural differences
  • Networking & communication – there exists a strong need for altruistic collaboration & sharing to combat corruption

In particular, it was recommended that quality assurance and accreditation bodies increase transparency, reduce bureaucracy, regulate private providers, and create independent bodies to handle complaints.

The need for everyone involved in the global HE community including those in governance roles, institutional leaders, academics, HE professionals and students, who should be seen as allies in countering unethical behaviour, to collaborate and play a part in upholding integrity and standards was also highlighted. Coventry University, Dr Glendinning noted, is one of over 130 universities globally that participates in an annual International Day of Action Against Contract Cheating organised by the International Center for Academic Integrity (ICAI) which engages students in the issue. Dr Orim also indicated that involving parents and employers in the academic journey can help reduce malpractice by students.

coventry academic integrity

Source: Coventry University


Dr Glendinning noted that digital technology and tools, can be helpful in supporting academic integrity. The Groningen Declaration Network, for example, is connecting global organisations that can securely verify qualifications. ‘Text matching tools’, it was cautioned, however, should not be relied upon as definitive ‘plagiarism detection tools’. She recommends that they need to be used appropriately in that regard but can be useful ‘teaching tools’.

Case Study: Uzbekistan

Jamilya Gulyamova, the Deputy Director of British Council Uzbekistan, highlighted some of the initiatives being implemented in Uzbekistan to drive forward change in the country’s HE sector such as a push for academic autonomy, increased access, improved employability, quality, gender parity and internationalization in terms of benchmarks, standards and TNE as well as a focus on integrity.

She noted that complexity, scale, existing capacity, legacy culture and time pressure to implement such changes are posing significant challenges. In response, via a structured Change Programme, the British Council, Ministry of Higher Education in Uzbekistan and Advance HE are supporting the reform agenda by facilitating integrated working approaches, and sharing learning and growth using both top-down and bottom-up interventions in order to develop principled practice, and improve leadership, governance and organisational development across the sector.

She also emphasised the need to for leaders to take a holistic and multi-layered approach with good communication that engages all stakeholders (including students), builds trust, provides supportive development, addresses concerns, and articulates policies and guidelines clearly.

“You don’t change people overnight and people don’t change their practices overnight.” Jamilya Gulyamova

Case Study: Myanmar

Having experienced a long period of civil war, military rule and economic sanctions, Myanmar is now undergoing a period of significant reform and this includes the HE sector where there is a drive towards university autonomy and capacity building. This is being steered by the Ministry of Education according to the National Education Strategic Plan (2016-21). Dr Zaw Wai Soe, Rector of the University Medicine 1 in Yangon and President of the Myanmar University Rectors Committee noted the need for responsibility and accountability, and that there are some key strategic challenges facing the sector in relation to governance, management, quality and equitable access.

Mi Mi Myo Win, Head of Programmes at the British Council Myanmar, also identified some specific operational issues facing the sector as it strives for improvements in fairness, integrity and autonomy. Staff stability (due to a rotational system), legacy education structures and systems, a hierarchical organizational culture and wider local and global collaboration are all areas which pose challenges.

Mi Mi Myo Win stressed that, “A good monitoring and evaluation system will be needed to track where things are going right and where they could go better.”

She suggested that the involvement of parents and students in monitoring success in HE was essential. It is hoped that the establishment of a new National institute for Higher Education Development (NIHED) by the Ministry of Education, and supported by the British Council and Advance HE, will help to build capacity and, over time, support HE leaders to address the key strategic and operational challenges identified, and subsequently enhance the overall system for the benefit of all.

 “Modern universities don’t ride alone.” Mi Mi Myo Win

Watch the full 'Leading with Integrity' webinar on Advance HE Connect.

Following our Socially Distanced Campus and Education project will be a member-benefit webinar on 14 July focusing on 'Higher Education Leadership in the Pandemic Age'. Find out more and book your place here.


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