Anti-corruption education: to be or not to be?

Since 2014, all high schools in Vietnam have been implementing the updated curriculum for civic education that includes anti-corruption content. This initiative by Vietnam’s Ministry of Education and Training attempts to tackle the problem of corruption in education. However, many people are skeptical, wondering whether this initiative will actually translate into behavior changes.

According to the Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index (CPI 2013), Vietnam ranks 116 of 177 countries and territories. A survey published by the World Bank in the Vietnam Development Report (2010) reveals that 17 percent of service users say that corruption is serious or very serious in public university and college education. In a recent survey, Transparency International (TI) also found that 49% of Vietnamese respondents perceive their education sector to be “corrupt” or “highly corrupt”. The percentage was higher than that found in Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and Cambodia. In the words of Pascal Fabie, a regional director in Asia and the Pacific for TI, corruption in education is the “double jeopardy” for its adverse effects to the future generation.

In recent years, along with the issuance of the anti-corruption laws, a number of anti-corruption campaigns have been launched in Vietnam. Under the Government’s Project 137, high schools and some institutions have started incorporating anti-corruption education in school curricula since 2013. Receiving accolades by many people, this initiative is often critiqued for its practicality.

The opponents believe that teaching about anti-corruption is just a waste of time. It is only about theory, not practice. There is no guarantee that students who learn about anti-corruption will not be committed to corrupt behaviors in the future. Moreover, civic education has been repeatedly claimed to be one of the most unimportant and boring subjects at school. In fact, most students see it as a non-core subject. They have invested little in this subject as they believe it has no role in their academic success. Meanwhile, the subject’s contents and teachers’ lack of appropriate pedagogical strategy further contribute to making the subject ineffective. Obviously, with the old way of rote learning and lack of practical application, anti-corruption education might eventually become a redundancy in students’ study.

Though anti-corruption education may not equip students with any practical skills overnight, students would become better aware of what entails corruption. They will learn about which behaviors or practices are viewed as being corrupt. This understanding is important because perceptions of corruption vary greatly among different cultures. In addition, many popular practices (including cheating in exams or giving money to teachers) are too often taken for granted. Children who observe and then practice these acts may never perceive that they are doing something bad.

It can be a surprise even to those working in the field of education that corruption entails more than what they often assume. According to Vietnam’s Ministry of Education and Training (MOET), corruption in education is most evident in such behaviors as buying slots in an (elite) public school; buying grades; recruiting and promoting teachers; as well as cutting out budgets for school supplies and education projects. A great many other smaller scale, subtle forms of corruption are going unnoticed and not seriously challenged.

Through anti-corruption education and campaigns, more people will become aware about the varied forms of private tutoring, abuse of schooling fees, and textbook monopoly as corrupt practices.

It is this very fact that makes the skeptics concerned. Rampant cheating and dishonest practices in the society can in effect negate anti-corruption education. A survey by TI found that 95% Vietnamese students admitted that they cheated at least once during their school time; many teachers and education administrators received grafts for improving a student’s score or as a guarantee for university acceptance. In a more subtle form of corruption, many teachers are found to hold extra tuitions with fees in the name of improving students’ academic performance. More and more parents come to believe that their children are either coerced to take the extra classes or put into a disadvantageous position in the mainstream class.

In this context, it is effective to teach moral lessons while what is learned is sharply contradicting the reality? Is it effective for teachers whose overall image is ruined by such corrupt practices to teach about morality? Is it possible for the youngsters to learn how to fight corruption caused by the adults?

In a broader context, while several high profile corruption trials are being executed as part of a crackdown on graft, the overall picture of a corrupt society with loose legal framework seems unable to convince the public that the government is truly tackling corruption. Anti-corruption education would then turn to a dogmatic and theoretic class; and worse, students would end up becoming either cynics, dissidents, or indifferent citizens. This is definitely not the expected outcome of any anti-corruption education.

Undoubtedly, anti-corruption education has its merits. However, for it to be effective, a sea of changes in the legal and political system is badly needed. At the very least, anti-corruption education shouldn’t be a “stand-alone” subject. First, it should be incorporated in the whole curriculum towards the common goal of equipping students with solid understanding about law and general code of conduct. Importantly, teachers play a crucial role as both an instructor and a role model in instilling in students the significance of integrity. To me, poor working conditions or any social impacts should never be a justification for teacher corruption. When the law on anti-corruption has not been complete, teachers’ own conduct and equal treatment of students are genuine lessons on anti-corruption.

Second, anti-corruption education should be accompanied by different extra curricular activities that aim to develop rounded citizens who are honest and respect the laws. Together with anti-corruption campaigns supported by TI or World Bank, these activities are necessary to get students involved in activism promoting integrity and honesty in study and their own life.

Vietnamese youth will expect and definitely learn a lot from these activities beyond the mainstream anti-corruption education.

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