The U.K. Must Legislate to Combat Money Laundering in Its Universities

Parents from developing countries have long sought to provide their children with a world-class university education in wealthy Western countries, such as the US and the UK. There is nothing inherently wrong with this—indeed, universities ought to take pride in their ability to provide an elite education to talented young people from around the world. There is, however, a dark side. In 2021, media reports revealed that nearly fifty UK universities had accepted upwards of £52 million in direct cash payments for tuition and fees from students hailing from countries known to be “high risk” for money laundering—most notably the West African countries of Ghana and Nigeria. A Carnegie Endowment Report on this topic observed that although “[t]he overwhelming majority of West African students in the United Kingdom pose little or no corruption risk, … many West African [politically exposed persons (PEPs)] appear to be using unexplained wealth to pay for UK school and university fees.” Indeed, many of West Africa’s nouveau riche made their money through illicit channels, and they may view an elite UK education for their children as a way to launder their reputations as well as their wealth. As Matthew Page, the author of the Carnegie Report, explained, any university that accepts tuition and fee payments in cash—especially from PEPs in countries with high corruption risk—is essentially “putting out a welcome mat for the world’s kleptocrats and money launderers.”

Although most UK universities acknowledge that they have basic anti-money laundering (AML) responsibilities under Sections 327 and 329 of the 2002 Proceeds of Crime Act, universities are not clearly covered as “regulated entities” under the UK’s Money Laundering Regulations. And while some universities have responded to recent high-profile scandals and government warnings by adding basic AML provisions to their fee-collection and admissions policies, this is not the sort of problem that is likely to be solved through unilateral action on the part of universities. The incentives to turn a blind eye to the provenance of tuition and fees from international students—which many UK universities have come to rely on as a revenue stream—are simply too strong. (It’s worth noting here that international students typically pay more than three times the fees paid by students from the UK or the European Union, and many UK universities encourage advance cash payments by offering international students discounts of 20-30% if they can pay their fees in advance.) Solving this problem will therefore require the UK to amend its AML legislation to address the particular vulnerabilities in the university sector. Three such reforms would be particularly prudent: Continue reading

New Podcast Episode, Featuring Casey Michel

A new episode of KickBack: The Global Anticorruption Podcast is now available. In this week’s episode, I interview the American journalist Casey Michel about his new book, American Kleptocracy: How the U.S. Created the Greatest Money Laundering Scheme in History. In our conversation, Casey and I touch on a variety of topics raised by his provocative book, including the dynamics that led to the U.S. and U.S. entities playing such a substantial role in facilitating illicit financial flows (including the nature of American federalism, the broad exceptions to the coverage of U.S. anti-money laundering laws, and the role of U.S.-based “enablers” of illicit finance), the challenges of regulating lawyers and law firms, the role and responsibilities of universities in light of concerns about “reputation laundering” by kleptocrats and others, the impact of the Trump and Biden Administrations in this area, and the challenges of generating and maintaining bipartisan/nonpartisan support for fighting kleptocracy. You can also find both this episode and an archive of prior episodes at the following locations:

KickBack is a collaborative effort between GAB and the ICRN. If you like it, please subscribe/follow, and tell all your friends! And if you have suggestions for voices you’d like to hear on the podcast, just send me a message and let me know.

Lessons from the U.S. College Admissions Scandal: Why Universities Need to Embrace Anticorruption Measures

In 2019, a college admissions corruption scandal made headlines in the United States and around the world. Richard Singer, who masterminded the scheme, promised wealthy parents that he could get their children coveted places at Stanford, Yale, USC, and other selective colleges through what he called the “side door.” Rather than donate $45 or $50 million to gain an edge in admissions, parents would pay Singer and his foundation to bribe college coaches to recruit the students as college athletes—even though many of the students had never competed in the sport for which they were allegedly being recruited. U.S. federal prosecutors, in the so-called “Varsity Blues” investigation, uncovered this scheme and indicted more than fifty people (parents, coaches, and others). Many of the defendants pled guilty. This past October, in the first Varsity Blues case to go to trial, a jury found hedge fund magnate John Wilson and former casino executive Gamal Abdelaziz guilty of conspiracy, wire fraud, and mail fraud. More trials are likely coming, and more convictions are likely.

Beyond the sensational headlines—which often focused on the wealthy parents, several of whom are celebrities—what broader lessons can we draw from the scandal? When it first broke, many commentators attacked the broader culture of entitlement and privilege in which wealthy parents secure unfair—but in most cases entirely legal—advantages for their children through legacy preferences and favoritism toward big donors. Other commentators drew attention to the hypercompetitive, win-at-all-cost culture fostered by the U.S. college admissions system. Critics pointed to a culture that leads not only to criminal bribery of the sort revealed in the Varsity Blues investigation, but also to less visible forms of dishonesty like college admissions “consultants” who draft essays for pay and students who cheat on college admissions tests, sometimes with the support or complicity of adults.

Those critiques of the U.S. college admissions culture are apt, but there’s another important lesson that emerges from the scandal, one that has received less attention: The scandal highlighted the extent to which universities have failed to address seemingly obvious corruption risks, and failed to implement effective controls for identifying applicants who were bribing their way onto campus. Compared to other large institutions, universities are behind when it comes to establishing effective anticorruption controls.

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Framing the Campus Sexual Assault Epidemic as an Issue of Systematic Corruption

Over the past few years, in the United States, the issue of sexual assault on university campuses has become increasingly prominent—the subject of student protests across the country, exposés in the mainstream press, and widely-released documentary films (see here and here). The issue is not simply that such assaults happen, but that universities are failing in their basic duties to protect students and to discipline those who commit assaults. There are many theories as to why universities are reluctant to more aggressively investigate and sanction offenders, but many assert that a root cause is the university administrators’ concern about losing public face and, worse, money. This fear is especially acute among those universities with large, renowned varsity sports teams: College athletes are disproportionately responsible for sexual assaults, but expelling or otherwise sanctioning them would cost the university money and public support.

This phenomenon—university administrators’ worries over the financial and reputational success of athletics programs leading to improper or insufficient responses to sexual assault allegations against athletes—can and should be framed as a form of systemic institutional corruption. I recognize that framing this as a problem of corruption——rather than one of negligence or callousness—is unconventional and perhaps controversial, even for people who are outraged at universities’ inadequate response to sexual assault. After all, using the language of “corruption” implies insidious motives. Yet the label is not only an apt description of the problem, but using that vocabulary, and that diagnosis, suggests alternative approaches for fixing the problem.

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Can Universities Teach People Not To Be Corrupt? Reflections on the Poznan Declaration

Some months back, I came across the Poznan Declaration on “Whole-of-University Promotion of Social Capital, Health and Development,” which its proponents describe as “a formal statement aimed at mainstreaming ethics and anti-corruption in higher education.” (I’d meant to write about it earlier, but I got sidetracked by a relatively peripheral reference in the Declaration to changes in national corruption levels.) In general, I like the idea of promoting anticorruption norms through education, and as a university professor I’m naturally sympathetic to (and flattered by) the idea that university education could make a big difference here. And insofar as the main objective of the Poznan Declaration’s supporters is to promote more discussion among university faculty and administrators in different countries about these issues, I’m all for it.

Yet in reading the Declaration, I couldn’t help but feel a bit of nagging skepticism about some of the implicit premises behind the enterprise. Let me see if I can try to articulate some of the reasons, and perhaps invite some of the proponents of the Poznan Declaration, and the more general push to incorporate “anticorruption education” in the university curriculum, to respond. Continue reading