Corruption has traditionally been treated as a legal issue and consequently as a problem for the public sector to solve through lawmaking and law enforcement. This approach has failed. It has proved both ineffective, because public officials are typically on the receiving end of corruption and therefore less likely to effectively oppose it the more corrupt the country is; and inadequate, because corruption doesn’t boil down to law enforcement, but profoundly undermines economic and human development.

In the recent past, anti-corruption initiatives have broadened to directly involve the private sector, which plays a central role in the supply of corruption; and civil society, because of the importance of whistleblowing in exposing this largely covert phenomenon. The Partnering against Corruption Initiative (PACI), for example, offers an innovative multistakeholder platform to address corruption.

In this context, universities can play a major role in fighting corruption, both in their capacity as institutions of higher education that touch the lives of future leaders and as large organizations with substantial economic footprints. A few years ago, the World Engagement Institute invited myself and two colleagues from the American University of Beirut, where I worked at the time, to reflect on the role of universities in curbing corruption. We concluded that universities should pursue anti-corruption along five axes that also benefit their operations in a serendipitous alignment of interests.

Governance: embrace anti-corruption initiatives

Universities are economic actors. The American University of Beirut is the largest private employer in Lebanon. Hult International Business School, where I currently work, operates seven campuses in four countries and three continents. The five largest universities in the world each have more than one million students enrolled.

Although they are often not profit-driven, universities have a huge economic impact in the communities where they operate. The first way they can fight corruption is internally, by implementing anti-corruption initiatives, for example, by ensuring competitive procurement of school resources, opposing nepotism in the hiring of teachers and preventing the skewing of research results for personal gain. In this way, universities can increase the efficiency of their operations by improving outcomes and cutting unnecessary costs.

Education: mainstream ethics courses

Setting an example of correct behaviour for students, though important, is only a first step. The social function of universities is educating and equipping students with tools and experiences that make them successful professionals and citizens. This requires a strong commitment to teaching professional ethics across curricula. Ethics education is known to reduce selfish behaviour among students and their inclination to cheat. The upsides are:

  • Improved achievement of educational goals, because students must actually study instead of cheating;
  • Long-term benefits, because research shows that students who cheat at school are more likely to be dishonest in their career;
  • Easier to manage universities, because the need for initiatives to curb cheating, like anti-plagiarism systems and exam proctoring, and activities to punish violations, like lengthy committee meetings, are reduced;
  • Superior reputation, for example, making business ethics education mainstream is a necessary condition to attain most international accreditation for business schools, which means it is an indication of high-quality educational programmes.

Education: anti-corruption trainings

Ethics education positively inspires and motivates university graduates to do the right thing. Nonetheless, in their careers they may encounter contexts where corruption is hard to avoid, either because it is endemic or because it is hard to detect. Specific training programmes should be implemented to teach students how to recognize and resist corruption, and more generally to assert their personal values in the workplace. Incidentally, the growing focus on compliance and anti-corruption might create new sources of revenues for universities that teach such courses.

Advocacy: promote the business case against corruption

The decision to engage in corruption is affected by several factors, but rationalizations of corrupt behaviour invariably follow the application of standard business decision-making procedures, inspired by cost-benefit models which assume selfishness, perfect information and full rationality. We know, however, that these assumptions are not customary in the real world. Real decisions are instead flawed by incomplete information and biased perceptions of risks and probabilities. The so-called business case against corruption gives future managers and professionals better grounds on which to make informed decisions by exposing several relevant sources of risks and costs, which managers have every reason to avoid.

 The costs of corruption
The costs of corruption
Image: D. Jamali, A. Lanteri & A. Walburn (2013), PACI (2013)

Citizenship: support collective actions against corruption

The business case against corruption underpins reasonable refusals to perpetrate corruption, but it is insufficient. Research has found that the belief that corruption harms business is not related to the willingness to engage in corrupt behaviour. Yet, the same research shows that belonging to an industry network substantially reduces corruption. Therefore, collective action initiatives such as PACI are an especially important step in fighting corruption. Universities should actively partner with other organizations to enforce broad anti-corruption initiatives. As the Nobel Prize recipient Elinor Ostrom has shown, bottom-up institutions of governance can emerge to successfully solve problems of collective action even when top-down governmental initiatives fail.