Corruption in schools must be stopped

Kelly Yang urges parents to stand up and expose corrupt teachers who are damaging the integrity of a meritocratic education system

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 28 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 28 November, 2012, 5:41am

Across the border, corruption in education has become so pervasive that, according to recent reports, parents are forced to pay thousands of dollars, and sometimes hundreds of thousands, in "voluntary donations" or outright bribes to get a child into a school. Teachers run for-profit cram schools on the side and ask their own students to enrol.

The situation has become so appalling that, according to the Shanghai Daily, the value of gifts students give to teachers during Teacher Appreciation Day has grown 50 times from a decade ago. Instead of fruit or flowers, Chinese teachers now expect pricey gift cards, designer watches and even cash.

Here in Hong Kong, while the situation is not nearly as bad, corruption in education nevertheless still exists. I have heard countless stories about misconduct - from teachers telling students they don't have to turn in homework if they show up with a box of Godiva, to college counsellors gently suggesting that families should hand over cash if they want more tailored counselling. I personally know of several Chinese teachers who tutor their own students - students whose grades they control - after school for payment. I've also seen e-mails sent by teachers during the Lunar New Year saying they will accept lai see.

I can't imagine any parent being too happy with this. However, I've never known a single parent to lodge a complaint with the school. Why don't these parents say anything? The answer is simple: as parents, we're afraid. As much as we don't like to see corruption, we really don't like retaliation.

We're scared of upsetting the teacher if we tell. We're worried that complaining will not actually put a stop to it. We're concerned about being labelled "the difficult parent" if we "tattle". And, here in Hong Kong, the land of "saving face", many parents are worried about seeming "cheap" or "poor" if they protest against the price of a gift to the teacher. And so they put up with it, year after year.

All these fears allow corruption to thrive and breed. Last month, two Hong Kong parents sued a former Harvard professor for allegedly charging over US$2 million and then failing to get their sons into Harvard. One study showed that 90 per cent of US-university-bound Chinese applicants submitted false recommendation letters.

While corruption is devastating in any industry, in education it is exponentially more destructive. Education is the foundation of our civilisation. If corruption replaces meritocracy in schools, if at the end of the day we can no longer trust grades, test scores or placement results to be legitimate, then what can we, as a society, trust?

The only way we can put a stop to it is to stow our fear and speak out against corruption at each and every instance. We need to do this consistently and systematically - and soon, too, before corruption looms so large among schools in the region that no student applying to a school from Asia will ever be taken seriously again.

Kelly Yang is the founder of The Kelly Yang Project, an after-school programme for children in Hong Kong. She is a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley, and Harvard Law School.