Germany’s no-holds-barred title race

The desire to have and to flaunt academic credentials can lead to questionable behaviour from individuals and universities both, says Brian Bloch

May 7, 2015

A planned executive MBA degree at the University of Cologne is causing considerable controversy in Germany, and at the same time the phenomenon of Germans buying fake degrees from American “diploma mills” has been attracting media interest. These are different issues – Cologne is a highly reputable institution and anything but a diploma mill. But at the heart of these two issues is a common theme: the problematic German obsession with academic titles.

The weekly Der Spiegel has reported on German users of the professional networking site XING who declare fake degrees on their CVs, having done no more than pay a small fee to obtain these dubious distinctions.

The magazine reported that a detective firm in Düsseldorf, whose motto is “We expose lies”, investigated 5,000 job applications and found that 30 per cent contained phoney titles, invented foreign internships or other bogus qualifications.

When Der Spiegel confronted those with allegedly fake or dubious qualifications, only a few were willing to talk. One of them said that his alma mater must “have gone astray” since he had been there, and another discreetly removed a Hamilton University degree from his XING profile.

At the same time, reports about Cologne’s executive MBA plans have focused on the fact that students will have to pay €45,000 (£32,000) for the privilege of doing the course. This has led critics such as the General Students’ Committee (Asta) of the University of Cologne to argue that the plans “amount to nothing more than selling a degree”, to the detriment of those who cannot afford the fee.

As well as objecting to the course’s elitist aspect, critics have been asking if it will have sufficient academic clout and intellectual content to be worthy of a master’s level qualification.

In terms of obtaining a degree, then, the options range from committing outright fraud in purchasing bogus qualifications, to collecting qualifications of dubious merit, all the way up to earning outstanding degrees at the best of places with the best of people.

One key issue is that those on the receiving end, those hiring the graduates, may not know where on the spectrum any particular degree is located.

Clearly, the buying of degrees that are dubious or worse is not unique to this country, but there is no doubt that Germans are keen to have fancy qualifications and to flaunt them. This is reflected in various elements of formality, such as the “Professor Dr” preceding one’s name. Furthermore, addressing someone as “Herr Professor” or “Frau Professorin” is very common, in contrast to English-speaking countries, where first names are often standard. I have also noticed that many doctoral graduates immediately include the Dr in their email addresses once the degree has been conferred.

Austria can be even more extreme. When on leave there many years ago, I asked the departmental secretary to call me simply “Herr Bloch” rather than “Herr Dr Bloch”. She told me that she just couldn’t, because I had this title and it belonged to me. Even the doctoral students were all addressed as “Herr Magister”, in reference to the Magister degree, Austria’s equivalent of a master’s.

Given this social and cultural context, it is not surprising that those who are unethical, gullible or both might resort to buying phoney titles, or that universities themselves might be all too eager to cash in on the very high demand for postgraduate degrees.

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