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.

By , Balkan Investigative Reporting Network

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.

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.

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I had found the ideal place to provide the credentials for my dream job – a smart private college in the Serb-dominated segment of Bosnia, Republika Srpska.

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.

‘No protection’

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.

My research for the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN) involved posing as a prospective student, as well as interviewing students and teachers across Bosnia and Serbia.

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.”

Falsified records

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.

Neither Aida nor Amel were willing to repeat their claims in court. Their former professor did not respond to BIRN’s calls for comment.

The dean of their faculty says he is aware of similar allegations but has never received any evidence to back them up. “Students are game for all sorts of stories,” he tells BIRN.

The rapid expansion of higher education has been accompanied by a steep decline in its reputation. The free market has, in some cases, given way to a literal marketplace for qualifications, where degrees and diplomas can be traded for cash.

Ms. Korajlic, the spokesperson for Transparency International, says students at private institutions often believe they are entitled to pass their exams because they have paid higher tuition fees than their peers in the public sector.

In 2012, her organization found that one in four of the 2,000 students questioned for a report on higher education had first-hand experience of corruption – either paying or being asked to pay to pass exams.

State-funded universities are also suspected of lowering their standards as they compete for students with the private sector.

“Instead of healthy competition, they actually complement each other in corruption,” says Milos Solaja, a member of the Council for the Development of Higher Education in Republika Srpska, a government body.

‘Bad image’

In Bosnia as a whole, some 18 private universities have sprung up since 2000, alongside the eight state-funded institutions. In addition, the country has some 15 “universities of applied sciences,” also privately owned, which typically offer vocational qualifications.

In the Bosnian Serb entity, figures from the education ministry show that private universities produce roughly half of all graduates.

Much of the business at private universities has come from public sector workers in search of extra qualifications.

For civil servants, additional diplomas can secure promotions and pay rises. Many opt for part-time or distance-learning courses that allow them to hold down day jobs. Their qualifications serve as a rubber-stamp – less a test of merit than a bureaucratic nicety.

At work, they are unlikely to be tested for what they have learned because they owe their employment to political loyalties rather than to aptitude. In this way, the entrenched corruption in the public-sector job market ends up corrupting the education system.

“It is a disgrace that people with such diplomas are allowed to govern,” says Zoran Stojiljkovic, a professor of political sciences at Belgrade University and a member of the board of Serbia’s anti-corruption agency.

“It represents a total loss of trust in the education system and an attitude that everything can be bought,” he says.

“Darko,” a public sector worker who spoke on condition of anonymity, says he was surprised by how little he had learned from his attendance at a university for applied sciences in Republika Srpska.

He said he had signed up for the course because he had been assured that his monthly wage would rise by €170 ($230) upon graduation.

“You had to study, read, work hard,” he says of his high school days. “Here, you don’t have to do anything.”

Darko told BIRN that his exams required minimal preparation. He said professors turned a blind eye to cheating and sometimes even awarded grades without testing their students. Material plagiarized from the Internet could be presented as original work.

“This is not something you brag about, if you’re pragmatic,” he says. “This is something you just try to complete – in my case, so that you can get a pay rise.”

“Dusan,” an economics graduate of the same institution who also spoke on condition of anonymity, says academic aptitude has little bearing on final grades. Having worked hard in his first year, he decided to take it easy after seeing less committed students fare just as well.

“I didn’t gain any great knowledge from my studies,” he said.

Darko and Dusan say they joined their school in the middle of November, even though the annual deadline for registering new students was in October. Darko says the school backdated his admission to September. All he had to do was provide his tuition fees upfront.

A professor at a Banja Luka university of applied sciences, speaking on condition of anonymity, says most students just wanted to collect a diploma, without learning anything new.

Her former colleague, also speaking on condition of anonymity, says the fees collected by private institutions matter more than any knowledge they impart. “They need to pay wages and utility bills, and they need to turn a profit for their owners,” he tells BIRN.

Despite the many accusations against private universities in Bosnia and Serbia, it is unlikely that they alone are to blame for any overall decline in standards.

It is also clear that the system for monitoring universities across the sector is not functioning as it should.

BIRN contacted the education ministry in Republika Srpska about the cases reported in this story, but they declined to comment.

Aldin Medjedovic, an adviser to the education minister in the Bosniak-Croat federation, says the private sector has made a positive contribution to education – but he acknowledged that standards varied across the board.

Mr. Tmusic, the head of the education inspectorate in Serbia, says that all institutions in the sector are being tarred by the same brush.

“There are serious private universities with quality professors, but the ones that are not so good give the others a bad image,” he tells BIRN.

Limited options

In Vienna, a popular destination for expatriates from the former Yugoslavia, students from Bosnia and Serbia tell BIRN that they left home in frustration. 

They also despair at the prospect of returning to a job market that seems as corrupt as the education system that supplies it.

Mira Grahovac, a native of Banja Luka who is studying for a masters degree at Vienna’s Technical University, dreads returning to her homeland. “You invest a lot in your education but you get nothing in return,” she says. “In a sense, your life is worthless.”

For expatriate students, the prospect of returning to the Balkans also looks less attractive because of the hassle of having foreign qualifications recognized afresh in order to be widely accepted on the domestic job market.

In Bosnia and Serbia, the procedure for approving foreign diplomas can differ in practice from what it says on paper. Officials often contradict each other, giving varying estimates for the time and paperwork required.

Several returnees say they activated unofficial channels to expedite the process.

Anel Alisic studied business administration at Spalding University in the US, graduating in 2000. Nine years later, he tried to get his foreign qualification recognized in Republika Srpska.

He applied to the relevant commission, affiliated to the education ministry, which rejected his application six months later on the grounds that he did not have all the right documents.

In desperation, Mr. Alisic sought help from his personal contacts. His application was promptly approved. “I had no other option,” he says.

However, the secretary of the commission in Republika Srpska, Jelena Starcevic, says her office has never responded to any kind of pressure.

Ms. Petrovic, the Serbian student who earned her doctorate from Oxford University, returned to her native Belgrade in October 2012.

An expert in Balkan history, she was swiftly recruited for a project at Belgrade University, where she had received her undergraduate degree.

However, the history faculty was unable to hand over her wages because her foreign qualifications had not been recognized locally. The project was funded by the Serbian education ministry, which could not release her wages until her qualifications had been approved.

Belgrade University finally approved Petrovic’s request in November – eight months after it was filed.

Nada Kovacevic, the rector for academic affairs at Belgrade University, says the process for approving foreign qualifications can take anything between four and eight months.

Petrovic says she was considering going abroad again because of the whole experience. “I felt like a fool for even having tried to come back,” she says. “I am no good at finding my way around this so-called system.”

Dino Jahic is a Sarajevo-based journalist. This article was edited by Neil Arun. It was produced as part of the Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence, an initiative of the Robert Bosch Stiftung and ERSTE Foundation, in cooperation with the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network.

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