Universities, especially public universities, work in proximity to governments. They rely on public funding, have a mission to serve the public interest, and often have representatives of national authorities on their boards. They also supply the public sector with the graduate workforce that it needs. Is the connection between higher education and state power always unidirectional? This might be especially crucial in many Eastern European countries, where public providers of higher education still depend on the central state in key areas such as funding, accreditation, closures and mergers, enrolment quotas, and many other issues. Universities could gain a lot by connecting to and lobbying holders of public office, who make or influence decisions on such pivotal issues. The stakes are high enough to provide higher education institutions with incentives to exploit such possibilities wherever they emerge, or to create them proactively.
For many years, the academic world has treated its inherent closeness to state authority as a source of risk for institutional autonomy. The propensity of academia to treat its connection to government as a potential source of undue influence by the state, has diverted public attention away from some critical questions. Is the relationship between academia and political power really unidirectional? Wouldn’t it be reasonable to assume that channels of influence can be open on both ends: that the proximity to policy-making, while exposing universities to risk of undue influence, also puts them in a privileged position to influence policy decisions and benefit from them?
Lobbying decision-makers in the public sector is not corrupt or illegitimate per se, but it might become a reason for concern under certain circumstances. For instance, if lobbying by academia is directed at holders of public office who have financial interests in one or more higher education institutions, then the lobbying might influence decision-making in ways that create advantages for specific individuals, institutions, or the entire higher education sector. This would amount to undue influence, promote conflict of interest, and ultimately capture and corrupt the decision-making process and its outcomes.
We define academi capture as a conflict of interest situation arising when public officials with responsibility for regulating education have a for-profit affiliation with one or more higher education institutions in their respective country.
In our data set, based on publicly available evidence from the Western Balkans (Bosnia-Hercegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, and Serbia) and the former Soviet Union (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Moldova, Russia, and Ukraine), we looked at such for-profit affiliations of high-level public officials responsible for higher education: Ministers and deputy Ministers of (higher) education or the equivalent, heads and members of their cabinets or the equivalent, heads of departments for higher education and of external agencies operating on behalf of the Ministries of (Higher) Education, as well as Chairs and/or regular members of the Parliamentary Committees on Education.
The analysis of the evidence from these countries reveals a situation in which a remarkably high share of those public office holders have such affiliations with at least one university in their respective country. In our research we report on those findings, discuss their implications, and suggest responses.
academic capture, defined as a conflict of interest situation arising when holders of public office with responsibility for regulating education have a for-profit affiliation with one or more higher education institutions in their respective country
 “Profit” is defined in broad terms and might range from regular payments (i.e. salary or fees) that members of government receive from a higher education institution, to a prospect of being employed by it, to any other kind of personal benefit, including ownership of private tertiary education institutions.
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