Billions of dollars are being lost every year to endemic corruption in school systems around the world, with widespread evidence of bribery and embezzlement of international aid, a major report will claim next week.
The extent of the corruption is a "formidable obstacle" to the United Nations' mission to ensure that all children receive free primary education by 2015, the study will say.
The news comes in the same week as the UN General Assembly met to discuss progress on the Millennium Development Goals, of which universal primary education is one.
The research, seen exclusively by TES, will be published by anti- corruption agency Transparency International (TI) with the aim of exposing the extent of criminal financial activity affecting schools and universities, especially in the developing world.
According to TI, Pakistan has approximately 8,000 "ghost schools", which exist on paper but provide no services, despite teachers and administrators being on the payroll.
Bribery - including paying illegal fees for school places or better grades - is also commonplace, the report claims, as is the embezzlement of cash intended for new school buildings and teaching resources such as textbooks and technology.
This is putting the goal of free primary education by 2015 at serious risk of being derailed, with approximately 57 million children still out of school, according to the report.
"Over a decade after the adoption of the (Millennium Development Goals), corruption has been identified as a key impediment responsible for the fact that there has been insufficient progress towards achieving education for all," it says.
Gareth Sweeney, chief editor of the Global Corruption Report: education, said that the vast amounts of money involved and the absence of robust accountability systems meant it was easy for corrupt officials to siphon off money.
"The education sector in many countries constitutes more than a fifth of total government public sector expenditure," Mr Sweeney told TES. "These huge sums of money are disbursed through complex administrative layers - from central governments to schools - and are inadequately monitored.
"In addition, the importance placed on education puts those who provide education services in a strong position to extort favours and they are driven to do so when corruption higher up leaves them undervalued or unpaid."
Between the setting of the UN goals in 2000 and 2009, about $5.5 billion (pound;3.4 billion) in aid earmarked for education was diverted to those countries most in need. But researchers for TI said the nations receiving the most aid were often least equipped to ensure that the money went where it was supposed to.
One example concerned the UK government's Department for International Development (DfID), which, along with the World Bank and the Canadian International Development Agency, provided Kenya with $83 million in aid between 2005 and 2009.
In 2009 it was revealed that nearly $55 million had been misappropriated, primarily because of financial irregularities in the country's Ministry of Education. As a result, aid to the country was put on hold, and the UK - along with other donors including the Netherlands, Germany, France and Canada - demanded a refund from the Kenyan government.
The UK has given no further funding to the Kenyan government, although it still supports education in the country through non-governmental channels.
A DfID spokesperson said: "All DfID aid funds are subject to strict checks to safeguard spending and prevent fraud. (We have) a zero-tolerance approach."
The TI report says that individual governments need to do more to prevent corruption. It calls for better procurement guidelines, audits and codes of conduct to be brought in to prevent education funding being exploited, and urges countries to adhere to international and human rights laws.
Harry Patrinos, World Bank manager for education, who participated in this week's UN general assembly, said that failure to stamp out corruption in education undermined the opportunities of young people to learn and contribute to society.
"Education is one of the most important drivers for ending poverty and boosting shared prosperity," Mr Patrinos said. "When there is corruption in education, the poor and disadvantaged - particularly women and minorities - bear the brunt, but societies as a whole are short- changed."
Not adding up
8,000 - The approximate number of `ghost schools' in Pakistan
15% - The proportion of `ghost teachers', who exist on paper but not in reality, on Papua New Guinea's official lists
pound;55m - Aid intended for education misappropriated in Kenya between 2005 and 2009
$2bn - The approximate amount lost every year through teacher absenteeism in India, with staff claiming a salary while moonlighting in other jobs.