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Fighting corruption in Romanian high schools

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The final high school exams in Romanian were known for being corrupt. Students bribe exam graders to get higher scores or pass the exams. In 2010, the Romanian government unexpectedly cut wages in the public sector and high school teachers lost a quarter of their wages. To economist Oana Borcan this setting was a great opportunity to study the mechanisms of corruption.

In her thesis she asked questions like: What happens when wages suddenly drop, does corruption increase? What works in fighting corruption, and who benefits from it?



Corruption is a worldwide problem but more common in developing countries or in countries with weak political institutions. According to Transparency International more than two thirds of the world’s countries struggle with corruption in areas such as elections, business, health, and education. Still, there are many questions to be solved to understand the mechanisms behind corruption, and how to deal with it.

Oana Borcan grew up in Romania, a young democracy with rather weak institutions. The World Bank reports of high degrees of corruption especially in the health and educational sectors.

"High school students in Romania must pass a test at the end of high school, called the Baccalaureate, to be able to enter university. These very high stake exams are well known for being notoriously corrupt. Since 2000, there has been an inflation of grades, in large contrast to the results in the Pisa test, in which Romanian students perform much worse than the national tests", says Oana Borcan.

A bump in corruption

In May 2010 the Romanian government announced a wage cut affecting all public officials in an attempt to reach a budget deficit target agreed upon with the IMF. According to Oana Borcan the government had denied the financial crisis and had postponed any actions until the last minute when they had no choice but to cut wages. To an economist this policy change provided a great opportunity to study corruption.

"We cannot observe corruption as such, but we can compare the results in the exam before and after the wage cut. We compared results of the final exams of public schools with private schools, which were not affected by the wage cut. Comparing the two groups we found that the wage cut led to a significant change in the test results of public schools. There was a bump in corruption."

So what kind of corruption are we talking about here? How are students able to influence the test results or grades? Oana Borcan mentions two main types of bribery. The first one is collective. A small amount of money is collected from a number of students anonymously given to the proctors before the exam. This bribe enables students to for pass around papers in the exam halls och turning a blind eye to interactions during the exam. After the 2010 wage cut the final exams later that year were fraught with corruption allegations, as many identical papers were discovered.

The other type is more hidden and discrete and involves larger individual bribes from more wealthy families given through intermediaries to exam graders. The baccalaureate exams are anonymous and graded by a central committee but with some extra money they might be singled out and given a better grade.

Anti-corruption campaign

In 2011, in response to the outburst in corruption the year before, the Ministry of Education launched a nationwide anticorruption campaign introducing a monitoring and punishment policy using surveillance cameras in the exam halls. The implementation of cameras was a gradual process starting in some counties 2011, ending in 2012.Also, number of teachers and students involved in bribing were prosecuted.

"We compared counties were cameras were implemented with those who hadn’t implemented them, and looking at scores before and after implementation. We found a large and significant drop in scores, both passing rates and exam scores. The drop was higher in those counties that had implemented the cameras. In line we existing theory we saw that a combination of punishment and monitoring were effective methods to reduce corruption", says Oana Borcan.

However, what surprised Oana Borcan was the fact that students from poorer families were performing worse when the corruption opportunities were reduced. She thought that in a less corrupt environment students from a low-income family would have better changes of getting better scores because those who are able to bribe are students with means.

"But let’s think about who the camera deters? The camera only affects what happens in class not what happens after the exam when the exams are graded. So we expect that in-class-cheating is reduced due to the cameras. The corrupt environment actually concealed the inequalities between non-poor and poor students. Still you cannot say anti-corruption measures are bad for inequality. What is bad for inequality is corruption."

Oana Borcan believes the results are applicable to other countries experiencing weak political institutions, not only Romania or other former communist states.

"Wherever there is a backdrop, such as a drastic cut in income or wages among bureaucrats, this could potentially lead to corrupt activities."

Footnote:
The studies above have been conduced by Oana Borcan together with Andreea Mitrut and Mikael Lindahl. She defended her thesis "Economic Determinants and Consequences of Political Institutions" at the Department of Economics, School of Business, Economics and Law at the University of Gothenburg on November 6, 2015