Fancy a degree without all the hassle of study?

August 10, 2007

Then try Serbia, where for €6,000 you can get a qualification and never sit an exam. Thomas Land reports on the culture of academic corruption that is scandalising the former Soviet bloc, and the economic and structural problems that underlie it

In Serbia, Emilija Stankovic, the Deputy Minister of Higher Education and a senior member of the faculty of law at the University of Kragujevac, was arrested on suspicion of corruption along with several members of her faculty. Their arrest surprised even the police, not least because the case against them began after a police officer investigating a car theft was allegedly asked to forget it in return for a complimentary law degree.

Investigators say they have uncovered a thriving industry at Kragujevac where a single exam pass costs about €600 (£405) while a degree, without the hassle of sitting exams, will cost about €6,000.

In Ukraine, Ivan Rizak, a PhD graduate of Uzgorod University and former governor of the Trans-Carpathian Region, has been charged with, among other things, corruption, extortion and involvement in a serious assault on a student.

Meanwhile, in Hungary a popular joke in academe goes like this: the supervisor in charge of a university entrance examination opens his briefcase and addresses the students: "I shall now distribute the exam questions... to those among you who have not yet obtained them from the internet."

All this points to something rotten at the heart of higher education in Eastern Europe. But to understand its struggle to come clean, the issue must be viewed in a larger context.

The transition to democracy for the former Communist states involves a great many changes, including fundamental reform in the governance of all institutions, including universities. Universities and other state institutions have been shaped by decades of an often corrupt, Soviet-inspired administrative machinery.

Transition is proving a painful and slow process that sometimes produces surprising results, said Nazym Nuraliyeva, senior lecturer in the department of political science and sociology at Kazakh-Turkish University in Shymkent, Kazakhstan. Having studied corruption in the higher education institutions of post-Soviet Europe, Dr Nuraliyeva believes that bribe-taking has increased during the current economic privatisation process.

She explained this by the tem-porary breakdown of authority and the democratic decentralisation brought by transition. Although welcome at one level, this has had the effect of weakening the mechanisms of supervision. Feeding the trend is an increased competition for marketable higher education qualifications.

In Ukraine, only one lecturer is alleged to have been caught red-handed recently taking bribes for arranging an exam pass, charging €300 a time (more than manual workers earn in a month) and allowing him to amass about €13,000 over the years. The penalties for such an offence are up to eight years' imprisonment for the teacher and summary expulsion for the student. But reliable university sources in Ukraine say that the trade in good exam results is booming. One common practice employed by fraudulent staff is the inclusion of incomprehensible questions in tests that can be solved only through a private financial arrangement.

"The Government says it has come down very hard on corruption within the venerable walls of these institutions," said one academic who did not want to be named. "Our corrupt faculty staff really do take heed. Nowadays, they meet their students privately in town, after working hours, to ply their trade."

In Serbia, the arrest of one third of the Kragujevac law faculty has shocked the political elite because some of the 15 professors now under investigation had been involved in the appointment of judges. Professor Stankovic has been summarily dismissed from the Government. Snezana Sokovic, the former vice-dean of law at Kragujevac, has now taken over as Deputy Minister of Higher Education. Vacancies are being filled by professors seconded from other universities.

At another Serbian university, one faculty is said to have issued more than 1,000 fake degrees between 1999 and 2004.

Allegations of similar practices at institutions elsewhere in Eastern Europe are rife in the popular press. Levels of public cynicism are high as a result.

In Romania, Gabriel Petra, president of the National Union of University Students, has issued a comprehensive "graft list" that asserts that exam passes can be purchased at named institutions for up to €1,500 in medicine, €300 in law, a little less in engineering and so on.

Nicolae Bocsan, the president of the Babe-Bolya Science University of Cluj, in Romania, has described any unsubstantiated allegation concerning his staff as preposterous. But he has promised to investigate if the student union names wrongdoers.

It is possible to buy a "successful" entrance examination to one prestigious Russian institution for about €15,000, according to academic sources. A successful end-of-term exam is thought to cost a student at least €2,000.

Higher education qualifications for sale are also available from more unconventional outlets, including the Moscow underground. The subterranean salesmen discreetly display signs reading "degrees", which are usually primitively reproduced copies of genuine documents for which they can charge €200. Professional forgeries including proper watermarks and accompanied by the usual documentation can cost up to €10,000.

Corruption is not helped by the fact that academic salaries are so low in East European universities, leaving academics always tempted to supplement their earnings.

One senior lecturer in criminology at a well-known East European university said: "Staff must fight for proper salaries enabling them to lead proper lives without having to take bribes. Most important, the transition is about extending the democratic accountability of the ministries.

"Corruption thrives when an education ministry applies pressure on an institution or a member of staff to pass favoured individuals who lack the ability or interest to qualify; or when senior staff persuade each other to pass each other's 'family members'; or when the parents of students willingly part with their life savings in exchange for phoney qualifications that promise a better livelihood for their offspring.

"Everybody loses by the process because a phoney diploma devalues all diplomas issued by any institution. It is in the interest of students to fight for the value of their honest work by all means available to them - their unions, the media and, dare I say, even the courts."

The commercial availability of exam questions in Hungary cost Balint Magyar his job as Minister of Education in 2005.

That was the year when he introduced a pioneering system under which the uniform final secondary school tests doubled as university entrance examinations. But shortly before sitting their finals under the new system, some 78,500 high school students found that the main literature, history and maths questions, and lots of the answers to them, were up for sale on the internet.

The debacle has led to restaged examinations, endless protests, recriminations and high-profile corruption investigations leading nowhere.

Slovakia and Poland, which introduced similar exam reforms about the same time, have experienced controversies over cheating, although not on the same scale.

There is very little evidence in Eastern Europe, even anecdotal, of bribery involving job promotion or research grants in higher education, although many academics agree that this must exist. Corruption tends to appear in the enrolment and qualification processes.

In their paper Towards More Transparent Higher Education Systems , Lászlá Szakadát of Budapest Corvinus University and Anetta Caplánová of the University of Bratislava attribute the phenomenon to excess demand for qualifications and insufficient collective decision-making and lack of transparency in higher education governance.

Another study ("The Cost of Corruption in Higher Education,: published in Comparative Education Review) conducted by Dr Nuraliyeva in collaboration with Stephen Heyneman and Kathryn Hart Anderson, both of Vanderbilt University, surveys areas such as bribes demanded of students in exchange for admission, exam results, qualifications, housing and teaching aids.

The study found that up to 84 per cent of randomly selected students in six south-eastern European countries reported being aware of the practice of bribery to get into university. Up to 40 per cent admitted to resorting to bribery to gain a place at university.

The report's authors conclude: "If the education system is corrupt, one can expect future decision-makers to be corrupt as well. This clearly must have a cost."

The lure of the West and the low wages that most graduates and academics can expect if they stay in Eastern Europe are a heady combination. It is not surprising that the black market has responded in the way it has, touting fake degrees and exam passes.

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