By: Blair Glencorse. This article was originally published in Transparency International’s 2013 Global Corruption Report: Education (Section 4.14).

The international community has rarely engaged coherently on issues of corruption within higher education, focusing instead on issues such as building teachers’ capacity, infrastructure development and programmes to increase access. The learning to be garnered from testing new accountability approaches therefore has important implications for the future of universities and colleges.

Higher education in what are called ‘fragile states’ suffers from a host of issues that manifest themselves in different forms – from a lack of strategies and plans, to absent regulations and standards and to the manipulation of power and resources by administrations, professors and students. These are difficult problems, but colleges and universities often have a degree of authority that can allow for positive change when decision-makers on campus are willing to attempt it. Moreover, students tend to be less deeply entrenched in networks of patronage and corruption, and more open to innovative thinking, which makes new approaches possible. The Accountability Lab (www.accountabilitylab.org) has therefore been developing varied pilots in different institutions of higher education – based on the ideas of students themselves – to understand pathways towards greater accountability.

In Liberia, for example, the ‘Tell it True’ (‘Tell the Truth’) pilot seeks to overcome the culture of silence around the problems that affect campuses – such as patronage, bribery, abuse of resources, teacher absenteeism and sex for grades – by providing a confidential, anonymous SMS ‘suggestions box’. All stakeholders on campus (students, professors and the administration) can text the free short code (8355 or ‘TELL’) and are called back by an operator, who gathers details of the problems faced and any ideas on solutions. This information is gathered over time, with an emphasis not on pointing fingers at wrongdoers but, rather, on gathering and understanding difficulties. The information is discussed on a periodic basis with the university administration and student government; both sides then agree on the relevant steps to be taken. A meeting is held with the larger student body to share the findings from the process, explain actions that will be taken and encourage further use of the system. This leads to a self-reinforcing loop of deterrence, reporting, discussion and action.

In Nepal, the university system is influenced by political parties at every point – from admissions, to staff appointments to contracting on campus – which leads to substandard education and, often, strikes or violence. The ‘My University, My Future’ initiative seeks to create a trusted, ‘depoliticised’ process to address core accountability issues such as teaching standards and timetables. Through a process of informal consensus building and more formal, facilitated discussions, critical groups (student leaders, professors and the Teachers’ Union of Nepal, the administration and members of the political parties) have been brought together to agree on minimum agenda for action in a far more comprehensive way than ever before. This has focused on core issues (such as the academic calendar) and will culminate in the creation of ‘dialogue centres’ to act as a hub for the flow of information, constructive discourse and the development of new approaches.

These pilots are beginning to change dynamics on campuses in Liberia and Nepal, and demand is now emerging for the initiatives to be scaled up. They may or may not meet all their objectives in the long term, but there are a number of principles that can be drawn from their development, many of which may not be new but are nonetheless worth emphasising. These include the need to do the following:

1. Understand the context

The temptation to replicate successful tools and scale pilots across contexts often leads to suboptimal, standardised approaches. The ‘Tell it True’ project from Liberia may not work in Nepal, for example, because students do not use SMS messages in the same ways. Likewise, the ‘My University, My Future’ initiative may not be as useful in Liberia, because academia is not politicised in a similar way.

2. Build coalitions for change

Even the most innovative tools are not useful in themselves unless the relevant communities are built around them to own their development and ensure their deployment. The Accountability Lab has made significant efforts to ensure that pilot projects such as those in Liberia and Nepal are preceded by a process of coalition building to provide the best prospects for success. In terms of higher education, these coalitions tend to include student groups, student governments or councils, university administrations, professors, parents and other organisations (such as political parties) that may have influence on campuses.

3. Ensure continual communication

A related issue is the importance of constant outreach to all stakeholders. Too often, interventions are not supported with the associated consultation strategies to ensure feedback loops and adaptation as conditions change. Through both these pilots, from idea inception to deployment, ongoing communication has taken place to explain what is going to happen, what has happened and what else will happen as part of the work. This has built trust in the initiatives and a sense of progress that is self-reinforcing.

4. Take risks and accept failure

Corrupt and non-accountable systems in higher education have deeply established stakeholders who are adverse to change. Addressing these issues in new ways is inherently risky – but necessary – if breakthroughs are to be made. This process involves embracing potential failure, of course, which many organisations are very unwilling to do – for understandable reasons. Failure is not a lack of success, however; it is a process through which strategies can be adapted, mistakes corrected and lessons learned. This concept fits the academic context perhaps better than anywhere else.