Tackling taboo of education corruption
"There was always a lot of resistance about talking about this problem. They didn't want to associate this word with education."
The word causing such discomfort is "corruption".
Muriel Poisson is a senior researcher for the International Institute for Educational Planning (IIEP), based in Paris, France, which this week launched an international initiative to try to prevent corruption within education.
The IIEP, a research institute that is part of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco), has created a global online database and information centre for tackling the misappropriation of education funding.
It's been claimed as the world's first such online hub specialising in preventing corruption in schools and universities.
"It hasn't been solved, but least we're talking about it," says Ms Poisson. "It's more and more on the agenda."
It's not difficult to see why corruption in education systems, particularly in the context of developing countries, has been an uncomfortable topic.
If donors are being asked for money to improve education in poorer countries, it's difficult if funding is failing to reach its intended target.
The information being gathered by the IIEP researchers talks of "leakages" between the money and material being put in to the system and what arrives in the classroom.
A search through the anti-corruption database - called Etico - shows that in some sub-Saharan African countries in previous years there could be leakages of 80% in supplying textbooks.
"Talking about corruption means you're pointing the finger," says Ms Poisson.
This might mean accusing high-level officials. But it can also raise some more complex questions about who is to blame for low-level corruption in schools in impoverished countries.
The problem of "ghost teachers", where payments are taken for non-existent teaching posts, or where teachers are absent, can account for 15% to 20% of the budget for teaching staff in some countries, says the IIEP.
But teachers can be missing from school because they haven't been paid their salaries for months - and they have to take up jobs in other schools or in other workplaces. Who should be blamed?
And teachers who are paid low wages might have become accustomed to topping up their pay with unofficial fees for a place in school.
There are many factors that hold back education in developing countries, says Ms Poisson. "But corruption can be a key factor - and it's often the poorest who are the first to be affected."
The idea behind the online database is to build a digital reference point for any research into the topic and to provide examples of projects with ideas for tackling corruption.
Among the cases highlighted is a transparency scheme in Rajasthan in India, where details of what should be allocated to the school and the attendance of teachers is painted on to the side of the building, so that everyone can scrutinise the finances.
In Brazil there have been councils of local people created to supervise spending on school meals and to prevent fraud.
Lack of information
As well as a reluctance to address corruption in education, there has also been a scarcity of reliable data on the scale of the problem, says Ms Poisson. She says that "millions of dollars have been sucked out of the system", but there is no confident estimate of how many millions.
"It's been very scattered. It's very difficult for people to get clear information," she says.
The online portal is intended to gather such information, offer case studies of successful anti-corruption tactics and build an archive for researchers and policymakers.
But it's a problem with many dimensions. It can be major fraud, such as the dishonest awarding of lucrative contracts or procurements in building work, learning materials, staffing or school supplies.
It can mean inflating costs in a way that uses education funding to line pockets rather than furnish young minds.
Or else it can be more localised, such as bribes for a university place or buying a fake degree.
In either case, it's deeply corrosive to the fairness and reliability of an education system. And it's an obstacle for any attempt to raise standards.
Concerns about fraud in education have been highlighted by Transparency International, the Berlin-based anti-corruption campaign group.
A report said one in six students around the world had been asked for a bribe in the course of their studies.
"It's very difficult to say whether it's getting worse or better," says Ms Poisson.
"But the fight against corruptions should be at the top of the agenda."