WHAT CAN WE LEARN FROM CORONA VIRUS SITUATION? #6 – the danger of amplifying integrity violations

The impact of the pandemic on the education systems across the globe is immense for numerous reasons. On one hand, most countries in the world have closed down schools and moved to some type of online learning which will surely impact the quality of learning but at the same time impacts the home lives of teachers, students and their parents.

We @NEPC hope to contribute to the discussion with this thematic series that brings different perspectives on the current situation by some of the NEPC experts. We asked them a few questions that will help us in shedding a light on this unexpected situation and that will help us in drawing some reflections from it.

In this issue, NEPC had a conversation with Mihaylo Milovanovitch, Education and VET policy and integrity expert and affiliate of NEPC member organisation Center for Applied Policy and Integrity, who explained what risks the pandemic brings in the educational systems from an ethical and integrity point of view.

One of the first responses of educational systems across the world to the pandemic was to switch to on-line teaching. In the long run, could this teaching mode lead to corruption considering that it relies hugely on private actors such as telephone companies and on-line platform providers? Could open source systems providers be penalized by the emergency?

In the same vein, the on-line/remote assessments might represent a challenge for teachers, and they are also subject to discussions these days. Being so to speak “hidden” and mediated by computer/technology, could they be susceptible to integrity violations? Also, do they make it easier for students (or their parents, by proxy) to “cheat” in on-line school settings?

The transition to online teaching of entire education systems is unprecedented in scale and we are only now starting to gain some insight into its manifold effects on teachers, learners, and families. Some of these effects may be new and unexpected, but many more are likely to be a continuation and perhaps amplification of pre-existing problems and weaknesses in and around education, such as low quality of teachers, an aging workforce, lack of resources, limited parental attention and support for students, etc.

In countries of East and South-East Europe, a number of these pre-existing problems are integrity-related and the policy responses of governments to the COVID-19 crisis seem to have reinforced them. In a virtual education environment it is easier than ever before to bend or break rules, especially rules that have been set decades ago for a completely different purpose. It is also more excusable than ever before to do that considering the strain which ill-prepared education systems are putting on teachers, school administrators, and parents as we speak.

One could think for example of the intentional inflation of grades, which according to our research was one of the most common integrity violations before the shutdown of schools. It was most often triggered by deficient classroom arrangements and practices, combined with school resource shortages which incentivised schools to reward the children of more affluent parents with better grades. From an integrity point of view, the crisis and the on-line teaching arrangements are reinforcing the adverse impact of both of these factors. Schools need infrastructure investment in the form of equipment, software, and connectivity more than ever, while the teaching and assessing of student learning remotely puts an even bigger strain on an area of professional practice that in most countries was deficient to start with.

Unfortunately, my list with such examples is long and they all point to the same observation. I do not think that the integrity risks in the current situation come from outside of the education system and from the external service providers such as the phone or software companies. For the most part, these risks emerge from the education sector itself, as they always did. This also means that it is up to all of us to do something about them, perhaps by using this crisis as a trigger to address some of the long-standing problems in our schools and universities.

The lock-down that the countries adopted at various degree limit the free movement of researchers, experts, reporters, NGOs, and other stakeholders who cannot go on the field and therefore to schools, with less control mechanisms operating. Could this situation foster a thriving environment for ethical violations and what could be done to prevent them?

This is an excellent question and it links to the previous question about the rapid proliferation of services provided to public education institutions by private actors, which I realise was left unanswered.

The current situation can be a source of integrity risks, indeed. It is a situation in which the procurement of goods and services has again become the focal point in the preoccupation of schools, education authorities, and the donor community with the crisis. At the same time, under the disguise or urgency and emergency the crisis seems to have neutralized most of the mechanisms of participatory governance and public control in education, many of which were hard-fought by individuals and civil society over the course of decades since the fall of communism. This is partly due to a design flaw in the participation and accountability arrangements themselves, which were never meant to function as safeguards in a context of social distancing and virtual decision-making.

I am far from believing that an opportunity always makes a thief, but there should be no doubt that the policy responses of education authorities to the pandemic and the massive involvement of private actors in addressing it create a fertile ground for abuse – abuse in the form of procurement fraud, misappropriation of financial resources, and politicization of decision-making. In fact, we are already witnessing the emergence of professional environments in which it is becoming acceptable for procurement decisions to be taken without the usual scrutiny by activists and media, and in which game-changing laws and regulations are being adopted without even the appearance of stakeholder consultation.

I believe that these developments are already pulling us into a deep crisis of trust in and within education that will take plenty of effort and time to address. Driven by the seriousness of that concern and our wish to help, at our Center these days we are developing a new strand of social media research to explore the impact of pandemic-related policies on education participants.

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