Serbia’s degree mills

A recent scandal over plagiarism involving PhD theses of top politicians has exposed a collapsing education system.

In April, Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic promised to reform the education system [EPA]

Successive Serbian governments have often called upon young Serbian professionals living abroad to come back home to help with developing and reforming their country to smoothen the way to EU accession. Yet the state has done nothing to facilitate the transition of these young Serbians to life and work at home. Something as simple as validating a degree earned abroad can take months and cost large sums of money.

In April, in a long expose outlining his planned reforms as incoming prime minister, Aleksandar Vucic pointed out that many young Serbians are leaving the country, while those who remain acquire diplomas of dubious quality from a “collapsed education system”. He promised that the new government will facilitate the return of Serbian graduates from abroad and strengthen the education system.

A recent scandal involving politicians with diplomas of “dubious quality” has left many Serbians wondering whether Vucic is really committed to improving the educational system in Serbia.

Getting a PhD in Serbia is easy 

Recently a group of young Serbian academics living abroad decided to challenge the status quo and dig up the dirt on our education system. They took the PhD theses of several prominent political figures and gave them a thorough read; they published their unsurprising findings on the website.

The group found that these theses, in addition to plagiarism, “suffer from other irregularities” and “fall far below academic standards in terms of both content and scientific contribution” .

The publication of the first text entitled “Getting a PhD in Serbia Has Never Been Easier: The Case of Minister of Internal Affairs Nebojsa Stefanovic” provoked a storm of reactions in Serbian society. Nebojsa Stefanovic, currently the minister of interior, is the closest associate of Prime Minister Vucic and the vice-president of the ruling Serbian Progressive Party (SNS).

Stefanovic was awarded an MA in Economics from the private Megatrend University in 2011, and only two years later, while serving as the speaker of the National Assembly, he earned a PhD from the same university. The authors wondered how Stefanovic managed to submit and defend his thesis in only two years while performing his duties as a prominent politician. 

Their analysis shows that many parts of the thesis were copied and pasted from other people’s work without any attribution; its methodology was faulty; whole sections announced in the table of contents were missing in the actual text; it cited a very limited number of sources; and overall it did not contribute any new insights to its field of study.

The group probed two other prominent doctorates and reached similar conclusions. It turned out that Aleksandar Sapic, the president of the Municipality of New Belgrade and an official of the opposition Democratic Party, had also plagiarised his doctoral thesis copying and pasting more than a third of it from other academic works.

Belgrade Mayor Sinisa Mali seems to have copied Sapic’s approach. He obtained a doctorate from the state University of Belgrade, Faculty of Organisational Sciences with a thesis containing many instances of plagiarism from various sources, including Wikipedia.

A Balkan ‘mill for diplomas’

These stories of plagiarised theses, purchased diplomas and corrupt higher education are not new to Serbia, or the whole Balkan region for that matterThe reasons for the public uproar this time was that the corruption was exposed in well-researched analyses and neatly prepared tables made available to the public in Serbian and English. What irritated the Serbian public was Vucic’ s denial. He said that that the accusations that Stefanovic had plagiarised his doctorate were “the most stupid argument he ever heard”. So much for his promises to reform the educational sector.

More than 1,800 Serbian academics from both Serbia and from around the world signed a petition asking for an independent assessment of the disputed doctorates. This was easier said than done, as no agreement has been reached as to who would be included in the independent body to study the theses. It is unlikely that such a probe would go anywhere.

Bulgaria: Wrestled to the ground

The problems with higher education in Serbia and the region run much deeper than politicians’ plagiarism. Private universities are sprouting all over the region and with little control from the state, they are turning into “mills for diplomas”. They quickly become known for fast-tracking diplomas and academic titles in exchange for a decent sum of money. 

One of the most infamous is the Megatrend University which has established campuses in a number of Serbian cities. The fancy new buildings of the university belie what goes on within its walls: It is essentially a degree mill where diplomas can be obtained for cash. As the result of the recent PhD scandal, the founder and owner, Mica Jovanovic, had to step down as rector, when the same group of academics who exposed the Stefanovic affair demonstrated that he had a number of questionable entries of degrees and accolades in his CV. By the time he resigned, he had made a fortune

As the new rector, Slobodan Pajovic, told me, all faculties at this university are now in the process of reaccreditation, as the Ministry of Education has sent an ad hoc team to inspect the institution. Enrolment at Megatrend has declined by 30 percent for the fall semester, as students fear diplomas from this university might be ruled invalid. 

Universities both private and public across the Balkans have become infamous for the quality of education and ease of earning a degree in exchange for cash. The validity of diplomas obtained in countries like Serbia, Bulgaria, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Albania, and Macedonia are under scrutiny and some countries have refused to accept them. At the same time, the region continues to suffer from a severe brain drain that is not showing signs of subsiding. 

“The more people leave Serbia, the worse the system becomes, and that in turn causes more people to leave”, says Marko Milanovic, a law lecturer at the University of Nottingham, one of the British-based academics who started the fight against corruption.

The reaction of the ruling party in the face of the scandal only shows that it does not intend to take any serious action to eradicate the phenomenon of diploma mills; replacing its apparatchiks with well-educated cadres is not on its agenda. They will follow the tactics of every other party in the region which has faced a similar scandal: wait it out till the public forgets and never take action.

Who can then blame our capable young people for leaving the country to seek a completive, merit-based system? 

Zorana Suvakovic is a Belgrade-based journalist, columnist and editor, working for the Serbian newspaper Politika.