Why a Balkan diploma-mill degree is more valuable than one from Oxford
Despite rampant bribery devaluing degrees at universities in Bosnia and Serbia, it's easier to get a public sector job that way than with a legitimate degree abroad.
Sarajevo and Banja Luka, Bosnia; Belgrade, Serbia; and Vienna
The job offer from the tax office came with a strict proviso: Finish college first. Only the brightest minds, it seems, can find employment in the Bosnian public sector.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
I expected a steep learning curve when I went back to university. But I did not expect to complete a year’s education in the course of a single summer’s afternoon.
I accomplished this feat of scholarship without prior expertise in management, my proposed subject. All it took was a couple of informal meetings, arranged over the phone, and the offer of a few thousand euros.
The university’s owner offered a short cut to my future career, suggesting that I embark on the second year of my management course without having completed the first.
“We can make sure that, by October, you meet the conditions for the second year,” he said, as we met at a quiet café last July, far from prying eyes.
I stressed that I had ample funds for my education, though I was squeezed for time. His response was brisk and authoritative. Tapping his fingers on the table, he told me to pursue my inquiries with a colleague at the campus.
He elaborated on his offer as we parted company. “If you’re really in a hurry, we can backdate the admission so that you would have already been a student in this school year,” he said.
And with that he was gone, having agreed to bend the rules for me on the basis of nothing more than two brief phone calls and a quick coffee.
Of course, I was not planning to take my studies that seriously. Nor was I serious about working at the tax office. In fact, I was already at work – as a journalist, gathering evidence of shady practices in the education sector.
I discovered that cheating and plagiarism go unchecked at many institutions, both privately-owned and state-funded. Attendance records are easily falsified and students often bribe teachers to secure good grades.
Many sources spoke on condition of anonymity, reflecting the risk to their own reputations in criticizing the institutions with which they were affiliated.
Their caution was the symptom of a problem that extends beyond academia, into the court system.
Corruption is widespread in Bosnia and Serbia, according to most international indices. Very few reported cases lead to prosecutions, and fewer still lead to convictions. In the eyes of most people, formal corruption proceedings only serve to demonstrate the vulnerability of the accuser and the immunity of the accused.
There is no law to protect or encourage whistleblowers in Republika Srpska. The Bosniak-Croat part of the divided country, known as the Federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina, only approved a law of this kind in September. It is too early to say if it will be effective.
Neither Bosnia – on a state-wide level – nor Serbia have passed laws to protect the rights of whistleblowers.
Stevan Milic, the former president of the main education workers’ union in Republika Srpska, complains that anyone who identifies corrupt practices in the system “could get into bigger trouble than the guilty parties.”
Ivana Korajlic, a spokeswoman for the Bosnian office of Transparency International, a global organization that promotes good governance, says weak laws have allowed corruption to flourish in academia.
“University employees don’t want to talk about this. They are not ready to go against their colleagues because they fear the consequences in the workplace,” she tells BIRN. “Meanwhile students are afraid professors will give them a hard time and hinder them in their exams.”
Of course, the best institutions in the region still deliver a good education. But the corruption is extensive enough to have fueled a “brain drain,” depriving the region’s struggling economies of their brightest minds.
The consequences are catastrophic, according to Ivan Sijakovic, a sociology professor at Banja Luka University in Banja Luka, Bosnia.
“Education is the best hope for small, under-developed countries – but we missed that opportunity,” he says. “I don’t think the future is bright. Standards will continue to sink and the young will continue to leave.”
Talented students, frustrated by the devaluation of Balkan diplomas, are lured to the European Union by scholarships. Those who qualify abroad are often tempted to stay there.
Back home, their foreign diplomas would have to be recognized by a domestic university in order to be accepted by the public sector, which is still the biggest and most reliable employer in the Balkans.
The process is slow and confusing – and often only expedited through informal, personal contacts. For students who have graduated abroad, it acts as a deterrent against returning.
“This is the ultimate absurdity,” says Marija Petrovic, who struggled for more than eight months to have her doctorate from Oxford University recognized by the university in Belgrade where she earned her undergraduate degree.
“My Belgrade diploma was more than good enough for Oxford,” she told BIRN, the anxiety apparent in her voice. “But my Oxford qualifications are not good enough for Belgrade.”
Meanwhile, students who skip a year at a Balkan university can still get their CVs rubber-stamped for employment.
Were I to have completed my management studies in Republika Srpska, my diploma would have automatically been recognized in neighboring Serbia – thanks to the cordial relationship between Belgrade and Banja Luka.
At the private university’s campus that July evening, the owner had arranged for me to meet an officer in charge of liaising with students.
The officer said I could join the university if I made an upfront payment of two years’ tuition fees, a sum of around €2,500 ($3,400). Most private institutions require no more than a year’s fees to be paid in advance.
The officer also asked me to complete an enrollment form, emphasizing that I should not fill in the field for the admission date.
If my admission were to be backdated, as suggested by the owner in the café, the form would have to state that I had enrolled at the university in the previous academic year.
The date listed on the form would have to be before Oct. 30, 2012, which was the deadline for schools to submit the names of the previous year’s intake to the education ministry in Republika Srpska.
Leaving the field blank would allow the university – or anyone else – to state the date of my admission.
BIRN has sought legal advice about identifying the owner of the private university that offered to exempt me from a year’s studies. His name – and that of his institution – have been withheld because of concerns that the case would not be treated fairly if it reached a local court.
BIRN contacted the education inspectorate of Republika Srpska about the practice of falsifying admission dates.
In an emailed response, the inspectorate says it is aware of cases where admissions had not been recorded lawfully, although it did not name any institutions. The email added that the inspectorate could only check the documents that it received from the institutions and was not in a position to spot falsifications.
Velimir Tmusic, the head of the education inspectorate in Serbia, also confirms that his agency has found cases where admissions had been backdated.
He too says that it is difficult to uncover the practice as some schools maintain two registers for students – one with the genuine admissions dates, and the other one falsified for inspectors.
Paying their way
Private universities have mushroomed across the former Yugoslavia over the last decade, crowding a sector monopolized in the communist era by state-funded institutions.
Fees at the private institutions range between €700 ($950) and €5,000 ($6,800), depending on prestige and course.
Students pay less at the public universities, which are subsidized by the state. A year’s tuition there typically costs no more than €200 ($270). Nevertheless, those with money to spare can use it to buy an easy ride.
“There was no risk at all,” says “Amel,” a former student who bribed his professor at a public university in the Federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, Amel says he arranged the bribe because he had failed to prepare for a crucial exam. On the appointed day, he sat for the test at his university, knowing that it would not count towards his final grade.
“You take the written part of the exam and you can write whatever you want in it,” he tells BIRN. Later, he says, he sat the same test unsupervised, in the comfort of his home.
He handed his second attempt at the exam to a middleman, along with €1,200 ($1,600) in cash. The completed paper was passed on to the professor, along with the money – minus a small commission for the middleman.
This method of cheating is hard to detect, as the stronger exam answers are simply substituted for the weak original. To anyone who inspects the paper, a bribe-paying student’s high score will appear entirely justified.
The use of this technique was confirmed by “Aida,” another student of the same professor who also spoke on condition that her real name was withheld.
Aida tells BIRN that she had paid €800 ($1,100) to the professor in order to arrange a second attempt at an exam. Having failed the exam several times, she says she was desperate to pass. “I am sorry I had to do it,” she says.